Written & Directed by Ninja Thyberg
2021/ Sweden/ 109 mins
Indulgence is the essence of porn; so many categories, so little time. It’s a broad and diverse subject matter to tackle for the debut feature from Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg, and the narrative won’t be for all (audiences are likely to react to the film based on their preconceptions of the industry) Yet at the centre of this seemingly gutsy and clever story of an ambitious young woman, the explicit nature of Pleasure belays something which penetrates deeper than the initial shock imagery: for all the flesh, fluids, and yes, humour – this is a story of consent. Explicit consent.
Boomeranging the predicted male gaze, it would be a miracle not to have illusions about this in the film. There’s a subtle and marvellous embracement as newcomer Linnea aka Bella Cherry’s motivation for getting into porn. Perversely, admirably, enviously – just so long as the camera is on her. That’s the trajectory of her journey from Sweden to the US, in search of better agents, better filmmakers, and better talents to work with. But in getting to the top, a lot of decisions need to be made and, yes, elements of self-discovery are involved, sexually and emotionally.
Most impressively, in an industry in which false performances (hate to break it to you) come as part of the illusion, the sincerity and lack of visible agenda in both Sofia Kappel’s performance and Thyberg’s direction is staggering. There’s almost a detachment, despite understanding where Thyberg personally lands, that never squarely makes direct statements concerning sex work or the behind-the-scenes strife and treatment of women within the film. Pleasure lays it all bare, and asks audiences to do the leg work for once.
This astounding sense of autonomy extends to Kappel’s spectacular performance and overwhelming conviction, consistently ensuring the film’s energy and focus align with Bella/Linnea’s agency, fending off concerns the audience may have, even in the more distressing, and frankly brutal, moments.
Thyberg sets time aside for bookended scenes of those brutal and intense aspects of genre pornography. Sophie Winqvist’s cinematography captures the almost quaintness of a female-led presence with one BDSM shoot, smoothly shot to highlight the aftercare and intimacy coaching, where consent is earned and respected as more than the signing of paper. While the other, largely shot POV, almost violates the audience’s viewpoint where a misogynistic shoot cancerous with gaslighting tactics generates the illusion of consensus. Much of the more severe emotional responses are expressed solidly through visuals and score, with Kappel’s use of language restricted for scenes closer to the film’s climax.
Documentaries and comedies surrounding the porn industry are as frequent as the public’s changing appetites. But what are less available are authentic narratives set within the industry. Thyberg’s Pleasure feels like the emergence of a fresh narrative, or at least the spearheading of one. With a fathomless topic to generate a feature around, Thyberg knows which angles she wishes to work with and sticks precisely to her guns. The film’s more compact and focused nature leaves questions for other filmmakers to pick up.