They always say, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” That might be true in any industry where there’s room for growth, and the same might go for the adult film industry, too. (The résumé might just look a bit filthier.) Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut “Pleasure” has the blueprint of a familiar girl-with-big-dreams story but takes a complex and unflinching look at an up-and-comer in a workplace where consent is a tricky thing. It’s just like Nicolas Winding Refn’s beautifully bonkers “The Neon Demon,” only without, you know, the necrophilia and the eyeball eating.
Sofia Kappel makes her captivating debut as Linnéa (or Bella Cherry), a tatted 19-year-old Swede who arrives in Los Angeles for an “internship” but really there to make it in porn. She loves sex, and when the customs agent takes her passport and asks if the trip is for business or pleasure, she truthfully answers, “pleasure.” For lodging, she stays with three other performers at their agent’s model house and connects the most with Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who’s a little more experienced but brash and belligerent. Bella also makes friends with a fellow actor named Bear (Chris Cock), who gives her helpful advice. At her first photoshoot, Bella is enamored by the detached Ava (Evelyn Claire) and decides she wants to leave her current agent Mike (Jason Toler) to become a “Spiegler Girl” for Mark Spiegler (playing himself), just like Ava. Since porn is such a competitive business, Bella realizes she needs to stand out and build up her brand with more credits, or the porn industry will just spit her out.
An expansion of writer-director Ninja Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij’s 2013 short film of the same name, “Pleasure” feels like a very frank behind-the-scenes depiction with more than enough specificity but just as much relatability to be one individual’s warts-and-all story. We all have a passion (hopefully), and we’ll do the work to make that passion a reality; Bella’s passion and work just happen to involve sex. The film very easily could have been a finger-wagging morality tale that judged Bella for her actions and her desires to succeed, but Thyberg and Modestij manage to make something surprisingly feminist — and even funny and sweet!
For all of the nudity and bodily fluids on screen, Thyberg still takes an artistic approach, from the mundane day-to-day travels to how much we actually see of Bella at work with her scene partners. She even finds nuance in the ways different shoots play. Once Bella is told that she needs to up her game, she gives “rough play” a try. At a predominantly-female shoot, the director and crew are kind and protective, giving her safe words and always making sure she feels comfortable (even if the imprints of the bondage ropes are left on her body). On the flip side, Bella goes to a shoot, where it’s just her and three men: the director/cinematographer and two actors. In the scene within the scene, she’s dehumanized by these two men in a violent situation; initially, the men show sweet compassion when the camera is off, until it’s just so they can get the scene finished, no matter her comfort level. Like that interesting dichotomy, Thyberg also shows how technical a porn shoot really can be. It may look titillating, but the blocking, the handheld camera angles, and the multiple takes can be exhausting.
With a screen presence you can’t take your eyes off of, Sofia Kappel has that “thing” as Bella. Every choice her character makes feels completely motivated and fair as a naïve but very driven young person new to the business. The emotional toll this hard work takes on Bella, even if that means ruining genuine friendships, is palpable. If Kappel’s powerful work here is all we have to go by, her fearlessness for any role seemingly has no limits, both emotionally and physically. For even more authenticity, the actress also insinuates herself within a lot of real-life porn performers (John Strong, Mick Blue, Xander Corvus, and the late Bill Bailey, just to name a few).
As Bella’s journey goes, there’s no shame in the work itself—it feels good and it keeps the lights on at home—but how much of a go-getter you are to attain that work isn’t always morally clean. Bella might become as abusive and cowardly as those who have been the same to her. Is that a personal problem of Bella’s with getting ahead, or an issue of mixing pleasure and business? “Pleasure” might be risqué and not safe for work, but it’s not pleasure all the time, and admirably so.
NEON is releasing “Pleasure” (105 min.) in theaters on May 13, 2022. It is currently playing at the Ritz 5.