‘Pleasure’ Is the Shockingly Realistic Porn Movie That Has Sundance Talking

‘Pleasure’ Is the Shockingly Realistic Porn Movie That Has Sundance Talking

Hollywood loves to look down on the adult industry. With the exceptions of HBO’s The Deuce and the first hour or so of Boogie Nights, the world of porn is typically depicted as the seventh circle of Hell, where dreams go to die and entrants end up regretful (Lovelace), rescued (The Girl Next Door), or brutally murdered in a snuff film for the pleasure of a billionaire-sadist only to be avenged decades later by private eye Nic Cage (8MM).

“We are still in a culture that has a hard time respecting female sex workers enough to make them protagonists. Usually sex workers are the victims and get killed,” says Ninja Thyberg. “To take them seriously enough to make them the protagonist of the story you need to respect them, and that’s still too hard for a lot of people.”

Thyberg’s feature directorial debut, Pleasure, offers a more nuanced look at an industry that generates billions of dollars a year and entertains most of the country. Premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it tells the tale of a 19-year-old Swede who goes by the stage name Bella Cherry (played by newcomer Sofia Kappel) who travels to Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming “the next big porn star.” Bella is a young, determined woman who loves sex and exhibitionism, and is keen to explore those sides of herself more.

When it comes time to shoot her first scene, however—with a considerably older man, for $900—she panics. After some reassurances from the director and his assistant, she regains her composure, and the scene goes off without a hitch. She even memorializes it with a photo of her smiling face, covered in semen.

It’s here I should note that Pleasure is considerably more explicit (read: realistic) than the Boogie Nights of the world. Everything shy of actual penetration is shown, including more dicks than the entirety of Game of Thrones. Save Kappel, a friend-of-a-friend acting in her very first film, Thyberg populated the rest of the cast with real-life porn stalwarts, from Evelyn Claire and Axel Braun to superagent Mark Spiegler, whose presence looms large over the proceedings. Thyberg auditioned tons of mainstream actors to appear in the feature, but ultimately didn’t feel they were as convincing. “This idea that porn actors can’t act is total nonsense,” she says. “They are so good.”

Thyberg, 36, first became interested in the world of porn as a teenager, and soon found herself fascinated by how “taboo” it was considered. “I came into contact with porn when I was 16, and my first boyfriend showed me porn. I understood that that was his sexual education, and I saw that he and his friends all watched porn and shared VHS tapes at the time,” she explains. “It was big in our culture but so taboo to talk about. The guys talked about it with each other, but me and my girlfriends didn’t even admit that we were masturbating at the time, and my parents never talked about it. I felt there was something missing; a shadow world that I had to investigate.”

And investigate she did. Thyberg wrote essays on porn for her gender studies classes at university, and in 2013, directed a short film (also called Pleasure) about a double-anal scene that premiered at Cannes. (That rather strenuous position also plays a role in this film.) The following year, Thyberg started traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Sweden to learn more about adult entertainment—first interviewing performers and directors about their experiences, and then sitting in on porn shoots. “Slowly, I became a part of their community and friends with some people in the industry,” she says.

Many of the reviews of Pleasure out of Sundance have focused heavily on the pain—specifically, a scene at the film’s midway point where Bella is pressured into filming an incredibly rough scene with two men that crosses the line into abuse. She is slapped, spit on, thrown around the room like a rag doll, and the look in her face is one of sheer terror. She feels alone, and unsafe, and the three men on set (two actors, one director) insist that she finish the scene otherwise nobody gets paid, and everyone’s time has been wasted. Bella has no one to turn to for help.

You can also put the blame on us, the consumer. In the end, the reason why they shoot this porn is because there are a lot of people who want to see this type of degrading porn.

“Legally, she’s not really being raped. Legally, she’s consenting. But morally, it’s obvious that she’s not consenting—even though she says the words ‘yes’ and ‘OK,’” says Thyberg. “The whole system is somehow making it really hard [for women]. Women have all the responsibility that their borders are not being crossed, and no one else really takes any responsibility.”

“You can also put the blame on us, the consumer,” she adds. “In the end, the reason why they shoot this porn is because there are a lot of people who want to see this type of degrading porn.”

That scene of abuse is juxtaposed with a prior sequence shot at the Kink dungeon, where Bella is tied up, and slapped, and has nipple-clamps applied, but enjoys it. The (female) director checks in on how she’s doing regularly; there are several other women on set; they give her juice in-between takes; her co-star shows her funny videos on his phone beforehand. It’s a friendly, supportive environment. She feels safe.

“It doesn’t need to be a bad thing to have violence in sex if you are doing it in a respectful way, and respecting boundaries,” maintains Thyberg. “It’s all about respect and consent—not about what you’re shooting, but how you’re shooting it.”

There’s also quite a bit of humor in Pleasure. In one scene, Bella’s male shooting partner is struggling to get it up. He turns away from Bella and the crew, embarrassed, and begins masturbating to try to bring himself to full-mast. When that doesn’t seem to work, he sheepishly asks Bella if she wouldn’t mind him sucking on her toes as he tries to get performance-ready. She can’t help but chuckle at the sight of it.

“To me, it’s not as much a film about porn as it is about being a woman in today’s society,” says Thyberg, given that adult is merely a more heightened example of a dynamic that plays out across many industries. “And it was important for me to not just show the negative sides. I tried to show different aspects and sides of it, but from what I can tell by the way people have responded to it… it’s still so shocking for a lot of people that they tend to see just the negative sides. The abusive aspects seem to overshadow the film, in a way. It’s a shame.”

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