My screening of Pleasure opened with an introduction from writer/director Ninja Thyberg and star Sofia Kappel, who made a big deal about how this is the feature debut for both of them. More importantly, they made it perfectly clear that while many scenes may be difficult to watch, they were all filmed with the utmost of caution and they had a grand time making the movie.
I’m sure I speak for everyone to ever see the movie when I reply, “Thanks for the warning.”
Kappel stars as “Bella Cherry”, a young woman fresh off the plane from Sweden to L.A., ready to take her shot at porn superstardom. The rest of the plot more or less writes itself. No, seriously, this is a straightforward “rags-to-riches” story in which our protagonist starts out with nothing, then hustles and backstabs her way to getting everything she ever wanted, then looks back and asks if it was all worth it.
The crucial gimmick here is that the film was made and marketed as an authentic portrayal of the adult industry. Indeed, with the exception of Kappel, pretty much everyone in the cast is an actual porn industry veteran either playing themselves or a fictional character. The short list includes Zelda Morrison (here credited as Revika Reustle), Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Mark Spiegler, Lance Hart, John Strong, Aiden Starr, Axel Braun, Xander Corvus, et cetera, et cetera, et goddamn cetera.
That said, it’s crucial to note that Axel Braun and Lance Hart have both since disowned the movie, complaining that the film had turned into a cautionary tale painting the porn industry in a bad light. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that Hart plays a fictional porn star explicitly designed to be the “worst-case scenario” for male talent in porn, and his shoot with Braun in the film is a disaster for our female lead characters. But in fairness to Braun and Hart, their complaints are much more broad with regard to the tone and message of the film.
Let’s be real (and remember, I’m speaking from experience here), there is no such thing as a 100 percent “authentic” portrayal of life as a sex worker. Regardless of who’s involved, how good the intentions, how much research was done, or whether the story comes down against or in favor of the world’s oldest profession, there will always — ALWAYS — be a reputable industry veteran saying “This isn’t right. This doesn’t speak to my experience.”
That’s in large part because sex workers are not a monolith. Interview a hundred different sex workers about what got them into the industry, how they got to where they are, why they left or why they’re still going, and you’re going to get a hundred different answers. And to the film’s credit, there is some effort at leaning into that.
The basic gist of the main development arc is that Bella Cherry is in over her head. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, she doesn’t know what her limits are, and she doesn’t know a good shoot from a bad one. So she lucks her way into a good shoot, and the filmmakers take great pains in showing what a good shoot looks like. A huge chunk of screen time is given to showing all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure the performers are safe and comfortable. The performers themselves are shown as human beings, passing time and making small talk in their downtime.
So Bella gets an outsized opinion of herself and doesn’t realize what her limits are. Thus she unwittingly blows right past her limits, gets shamed for wasting everybody’s time and money when she backs out for her own safety, and learns the hard way what a bad shoot looks like.
Then we move on to the second half, Bella rebounds, and a strange thing happens: As Bella is on her way toward status as a full-fledged porn star, she finds herself doing real damage to the people around her. She’s doling out the exact kind of harm that she herself was subjected to on her way up. And the crazy thing is, nobody around her (with one notable exception, whom we’ll get to in a minute) seems to notice or care.
The film is explicitly clear in portraying the porn industry as a job like any other. Every job has its good days and bad days, every job has its asshole customers and coworkers, and pretty much the entire world is run by rich white men taking advantage of young women. The main difference is that in sex work, those bad days and asshole coworkers and negligent greedy sexist pigs can cause very real damage to very real people.
And by the end of the film, Bella will have to reconcile herself with the damage she’s caused.
Yet the film makes it perfectly clear that Bella is only one case. On one end of the spectrum is Bella’s friendly rival (Joy, played by Reustle), who ends up suffering the most collateral damage from Bella’s meteoric rise. On the other end is Ava (Evelyn Claire), the bitchy rival who actively seems to thrive in the cutthroat porn industry and proves herself to be a bona fide glutton for punishment. And it’s anyone’s guess where Bella herself will land on the spectrum.
I appreciate that the film goes out of its way to show the porn industry as a composite hodgepodge of people, all of whom have their own hangups and life stories. I respect how the film portrays porn stars and filmmakers who live happy and productive lives, respected by their peers for their talent and professionalism. I also like the care and attention put toward the porn starlets’ online game — everyone has a side hustle nowadays, and a sex worker who isn’t cultivating fans and followers on social media is a sex worker who won’t get anywhere.
With all of that said, the film does fail a crucial test: Bella doesn’t come out of this looking good. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a single character (except maybe Bear, Chris Cock’s character) who comes out of the film looking better by the end than at the beginning. More to the point, I’m not convinced that any of them came out better or stronger or more sexually empowered for their experiences in the porn industry. What’s worse, I’m pretty darn confident that Bella’s career in the industry left everyone involved even worse off! Even if the film makes it perfectly clear that Bella is hardly a representative case, the film still comes off looking as “anti-porn” for all of that.
It might’ve gone a long way if the film had ever thought to mention that the porn industry has a notoriously high turnover rate. Precious few porn actors have a shelf life beyond their thirties, newcomers flame out, and porn actors decide to retire for any number of reasons. It happens all the time. That’s not even getting started on the mercifully rare few porn actors who fall to drug abuse (RIP Dakota Skye) and/or suicide (RIP August Ames). To say nothing of the actors who’ve suffered serious injury as a result of shooting porn. (Just ask Adriana Chechik.) Hell, what if Bella eventually decides that she wants to start a family and have kids? Sure, it’s entirely possible to be a good mother and have a career in porn (Lena the Plug and Piper Perri have apparently found some way to make it work.), but there’s also a chance that Bella could get herself in a Tori Black situation. I digress.
The point is, there were any number of opportunities to ask if Bella had any kind of long-term plan. But this never comes up once. Bit of a glaring blind spot.
But does this work as a feminist picture? Not really. Yes, the film makes it perfectly clear that the porn industry is every bit as male-driven and subject to the female gaze as the rest of the patriarchy. Yes, we do get some delightful scenes of Bella and Joy and all their gal pals lifting each other up. Then the third act ruins it all when Bella tramples over her female costars on her way to the top. And right when it looks like Bella is actually going to take steps and try to make amends for those transgressions, we’re out of time and the movie’s over.
Sorry, but it’s just not a feminist picture without the message that women should stand united against the patriarchy and work to help each other live and thrive in a system rigged against them, rather than waste time tearing each other down. From where I’m sitting, the “tearing each other down” part has a much greater impact on the plot than the “lifting each other up” part. For a feminist movie, this will not do.
It’s such a damn shame, because there really is a lot about this movie to like. I appreciate how the filmmakers showed as much as they possibly could of the porn industry, only stopping within a hair’s breadth of showing actual hardcore penetration. For fuck’s sake, the movie opens with Bella naked in the shower, awkwardly maneuvering herself to find the best angle for shaving her taint — from start to finish, this movie absolutely does not mess around with portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly behind the scenes of a porn shoot.
I might add that Sofia Kappel anchors the film admirably, and I’d be curious to see what else she can do as an actor. For that matter, I’d like to see everyone in this cast get more work in mainstream Hollywood. There’s such a pervasive stereotypes that porn actors can’t act, there’s a lasting stigma keeping porn actors from getting any kind of reputable gigs in mainstream Hollywood, yet here’s a whole cast of porn industry veterans turning in marvelous dramatic work.
With all of that said, I’m sorry I can’t sign off on Pleasure. When you get past the novelty of a film all about the secret life of porn stars, we’re left with a threadbare plot and a story that’s just plain unpleasant. With all due respect to the multitude of porn industry mainstays who lent their time and talent to this production, and with gratitude for all the best of intentions and efforts toward making an authentic and respectful portrayal of the industry with warts and all, I’m not convinced that the film is as empowering or feminist or sex-positive as the filmmakers seem to think it is.
The more I think about this film, the less I like it. Damn shame, because I really do think that Ninja Thyberg has potential as a filmmaker and even the attempt of making this film in such a way takes the kind of brazen creativity we could definitely use more of. Better luck next time.