Ninja Thyberg’s LA porn drama, Pleasure, is an authentic, scathing look at an industry with little regard for boundaries or consent.
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In the opening scene of Pleasure, an airport worker at passport control asks Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) if she’s in LA “for business or pleasure.” “Pleasure,” she replies, with a knowing smirk, a wry joke about the nature of Bella’s “business”: she has come to LA hoping to become the next big porn star. Soon, though, we realise her answer was the first sign of many that the nineteen-year-old Swedish expat isn’t prepared for the realities of working in the adult film industry. Business and pleasure, suggests Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut, are things the patriarchal industry sees as one and the same. The men in front of and behind the camera too often align themselves with the average porn viewer, treating their female collaborators as pleasure objects rather than colleagues.
Thyberg’s film is a forensic, authentic look at the inner workings of the porn industry, and particularly, how consent operates in that space; to make it to the top in porn, she suggests, you have to allow your boundaries to be eroded. Thyberg’s cast and crew is made up mostly of real workers in the porn industry — lead actress Kappel is not, although her unfamiliarity with that world aligns with her character’s outsider status. The result is a film that doesn’t sensationalise porn, because, for most of the people on set, making porn is their everyday lives. Instead, we get a rich sense of the minutiae of being on a porn set: the way crew members casually chat in the lead up to a shoot, the space and time (or lack thereof) given to actors to prepare for a scene, and how much of each scene is choreographed versus improvised.
Naked bodies are never sensationalised by Thyberg’s camera — operated by cinematographer Sophie Winqvist — unless the body in question is alarming to Bella. In Bella’s first scene, for example, her male co-star’s penis is briefly shot in extreme closeup as she contemplates the prospect of putting it in her mouth. Thyberg’s shallow focus closeup, with the tip in focus and the man’s waist blurry in the background, emphasises its size and protrusion. The penis feels like a threatening object, too much too soon for newbie Bella who only just landed in LA and was thrown straight into this scene with little prep. By contrast, we first see Bella’s naked body when she’s shaving in the shower to prepare for this shoot. Even though we see all of her, there’s nothing leering about the still camera, which observes her from a moderate distance as she clumsily contorts her body to reach every stray hair. The camera’s relationship to Bella’s body is the same as Bella’s own relationship to her body: mundane, familiar, not overly precious. At the same time, the up close sound of the razor on Bella’s skin is so loud in the mix that it feels violent.
Although Pleasure takes place in a highly competitive industry, Thyberg depicts Bella’s housemates, fellow porn actresses, as sweet and supportive. They even throw a celebration when Bella later moves out to work with a higher-level manager. A central part of the film is Bella’s bond with Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), a wild, fierce, but loveable fellow actress. She defends Bella against Ava (Evelyn Claire), a high-strung “Spiegler girl” (aka girls represented by the most demanding and successful manager in the biz), and she helps Bella by taking photos of her deep throating a banana for Bella’s Instagram. Still, it’s notable that Bella and Joy’s friendship first sparks when they’re making fun of Ava behind her back. It’s an early instance of women screwing over other women, an instinct Bella learns to follow as she gets closer and closer to the top.
Partway through Pleasure, Bella stars in a BDSM scene with a female kink director, Aiden Starr (who plays herself); the focus on consent in this scene illuminates how a sex scene should be directed. The buildup to the shoot is lengthy and reassuring: Starr establishes consent and boundaries with Bella, discusses and reiterates safe words and actions, and ensures that the male co-star is on board. Starr remains professional throughout the shoot, reassuring Bella that she looks beautiful, but never touching Bella in a sexual way. It’s the only scene in the film where a director checks in with Bella midway through the shoot. It’s also the only one where female pleasure is discussed and encouraged: Starr tells the male actor to make Bella come; the director of Bella’s first scene told her when she had to (pretend to) come. Despite the extremity of the scenario in Starr’s shoot — Bella is tied up, strung from the ceiling, and whipped — Bella feels safer than she does on any other porn shoot in the movie. She leaves the set covered in red, raw rope marks, but because Starr and her team look after Bella and talk her through aftercare, the damage to her body feels far less egregious than the emotional scars that other porn shoots in the film leave her with.
Watching how Aiden Starr creates a safe space on set changes the way you watch every other porn shoot in Pleasure — it even retroactively made me question moments of Bella’s first shoot, which I had previously dismissed as not that bad. I took it as given that Bella was just thrown into her first scene with little prep. I warily accepted that the crew was almost entirely male and that Bella’s pleasure wasn’t a part of the scene. When Bella briefly backed out of the shoot, nervous and unsure of what to do, the director put on a reassuring voice to convince her to come back. He told her that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do, but then reminded her that he had hundreds of girls who would happily take Bella’s place, along with the $900 that came with the job. At the time, an alarm bell rang in my head that screamed “COERCIVE LANGUAGE,” but I wondered if I was reading too much into it, and moved on. As soon as I saw Starr’s scene, I remembered Bella’s first shoot and suddenly understood everything that the male filmmakers she was working with should have been doing but weren’t.
Starr’s scene is also contrasted with Bella’s next shoot, which involves rough sex, as well, but under the direction of a male crew with little concern for Bella’s wellbeing. By placing these two scenes side by side, Thyberg highlights how BDSM scenes are not inherently unsafe, but just like any scene, they require consent and strictly reinforced boundaries. In the second BDSM shoot, Bella is given no prep time, and when she steps in front of the camera, the director calls action without discussing what her two male co-stars are going to do to her. There’s no safe word established, so when the scene gets too intense and she calls out, “No!,” it takes a while for her co-stars to stop. When they do, the director uses thinly veiled coercive language: “If you need to [stop], you need to, but try not to stop.” Just like Starr did, he tells Bella she looks beautiful, but he does so while leaning his body against hers on the floor and kissing the top of her head, condescending to her and treating her like a sexual partner rather than an employee.
Perhaps even more disturbing than this rape scene is what follows, in the aftermath of Bella’s traumatic shoot, when she almost quits the industry but then decides to come back fighting by pushing past her own boundaries. Bella’s initial reaction is to fire her agent and resolve to move back home to Sweden, as she’s determined to never put herself in that position again. Thyberg cleverly styles and structures her decision to make a “comeback” like the pivotal moment of a sports drama: our hero hits rock bottom, then returns stronger than ever with a training montage. The image of Bella gazing determinedly out over a body of water at dawn, in a hoodie, after receiving an encouraging phone call from her mother, looks like something straight out of a Rocky movie. Then there’s the training montage that follows, set to a peppy pop song, except instead of lifting weights, Bella is practicing using butt plugs of increasingly large sizes to prepare for a double-anal scene. This would be the triumphant comeback in a hero’s journey narrative, but in the porn industry, a professional triumph means Bella forcing herself to engage in sexual acts she isn’t comfortable with. As Spiegler tells her earlier in the film, she won’t rise to the ranks of the girls he represents until she’s willing to engage in the most extreme sexual acts.
In the film’s final act, Thyberg goes on to show how abusive behaviour is passed down from abuser to the abused; Bella is encouraged to objectify and coerce other women in order to advance her own career. First, it’s Joy, who Bella requests as the second girl in a boy-girl-girl sex scene. When they find out that the male co-star is a guy with a vendetta against Joy, and he starts to abuse her behind and in front of the camera, Bella refuses to stand up for her in fear that her own reputation will be tarnished. Later, when Bella does a scene with Ava, we see Bella replicating the exact behaviour that previous male directors and co-stars have inflicted on her. She is aggressive and violent toward Ava in the scene, venting her frustrations on the rival actress without asking for consent or explaining what she plans to do. It’s a disturbing scene, but the real wake-up call is Ava’s nonchalant dismissal when Bella tries to apologise for what she did. To Ava, no boundaries were crossed, because to become the reigning queen of the LA porn scene, as Ava is, she had to push herself so far that she no longer had any boundaries to cross.
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