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Sundance 2021 Review: In ‘Pleasure’ discomfort becomes tangible

The ultimate fly on the wall experience.

Bella poses on a raft in the pool
(Image: © Sundance Institute)

Our Verdict

Pleasure is a candid often brutally uncomfortable examination of the toxic culture that permeates the adult film industry.

For

  • 💄 The ultimate fly on the wall experience.
  • 💄 Sharp writing & thoughtful direction from Thyberg.
  • 💄 Critical of the industry without shaming the women who populate it.

Against

  • 💄 Triggering depictions of sexual assault.
  • 💄 Leaves a number of underdeveloped threads hanging.

Pleasure is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

A feat of heightened realism, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure strips the adult film industry of all illusions. Gone is the well lit, picturesque snapshots of willing women, submissively down on their knees. Replacing them is the stark discomfort of a single woman, surrounded by the hairy, hulking figures of half naked men holding DSLR video cameras. Pleasure is a candid exploration of the LA porn industry with keen commentary on the nature of consent and the complex power dynamics that permeate porn’s production. The film holds little back, making for a distinctly difficult watch but rarely disappoints in its razor-sharp insight.

When it comes to making its points, Pleasure wastes no time. Following a title sequence that juxtaposes loud moans and thigh slaps with an operatic choir of voices, the film begins with protagonist Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) standing before a customs agent in an LA airport. “You here for business or pleasure?” He asks her. The audience, already in on the joke, can almost laugh when she flashes him a smile and says “pleasure.” Beyond being a succinct cold open, this scene provides a peak into Bella’s expectations. Throughout the film she will continuously declare that her goal is to become the “next big porn star,” and will prove just how seriously she takes those words. Through it all, that question of “business or pleasure” will continue to linger.

Bella begins her journey by moving in with a group of girls, including industry veteran Joy, who quickly becomes her best friend. Teaching her the ins and outs of building an online persona while laughing alongside her, Joy is both a guide and a solace from the common inhumanity of their business. Outside of the crowded yet endearingly familiar home the girls share is the harsh reality of their world. At video shoots, Bella’s anxiety is palpable as the audience’s unease grows. Tethered to her as she navigates an unfamiliar world, we mirror her confusion and desire to work out the unspoken rules - at the same time we can’t help but anticipate ill intent. At times we feel more in the know than Bella, hyper aware of all that can go wrong. That being said, naive isn’t quite the word to describe our protagonist; however many encounters can catch her off guard, she has a certain stoicism to her. However when the weight of everything does get to her, that crack in her resolve is all the more devastating.

It doesn’t take long for Bella to figure out that reaching stardom in this industry will require negotiating her boundaries. And though those behind the camera have a tendency to smile and speak in polite tones, that kindness is often surface level. In scenes graphic and visceral, Pleasure depicts the kind of sex that populates industry porn sites: anything goes, including slapping, choking, spitting and other violent, demeaning behavior. However unlike the videos receiving millions of views online, the film confronts the trauma these acts can cause both in real time and in the long term. Realistic, uncomfortable and oft astonishing, these scenes themselves are traumatic, warranting the trigger warning that will likely follow the film's release. 

It’s important to note that Pleasure holds respect for those in the adult film industry, never shaming the career and instead shining a light on all that makes it a toxic work environment. There is so much about this world to deconstruct, more than can be done in 100 minutes. Pleasure makes every effort to leave few of these boxes unchecked and, in fact, the film suffers for this. Early in the film, Bella strikes up a fascinating conversation with Bear, a fellow porn performer who has some choice words about the industry’s treatment and fetishization of him as a Black man. In both her writing and direction, Thyberg proves she is quite capable of handling complexities like racial fetishization but gives herself little time to do so, instead opting for a brief mention in this single moment. 

Similar underdeveloped threads and over simplifications rear their head, a notable example being Bella’s character development. Though Kappel gives a heartbreaking performance, Bella goes through countless stages of her career and mental health in less than two hours. This gives her little onscreen time to absorb her moments of change. Much of this occurs gradually, meaning the developments aren’t always immediately clear but, to its credit, the film is never entirely unaware of how she is internally impacted, always letting these aspects come back around. But for a film so skilled in its ability to linger on discomfort, when the time to do so can not be found, it becomes distinctly noticeable. In a way, the primary complaint of this film is a desire for more of it. Despite how uncomfortable and alarming the experience, the film provides an insightful examination of the culture within the porn industry. Pleasure is the ultimate fly on the wall film, often making the audience privy to scenes they would rather avoid.

Continuously hanging over Bella is that initial question of business or pleasure. Porn is both, but not for everyone at the same time. We’re constantly exposed to the “pleasure” side: the glamour of the women, their images and videos devoid of their context. Pleasure tackles contextualizing like a duty: not quite anti-porn nor pro-porn, the film focuses on exposing the nature of an industry where sex is for the pleasure of others. Stripping down those walls reveals the business of it all, toxic, misogynistic and power-obsessed like any other billion-dollar industry.