I cannot enjoy professional pornography with the sound on. The theatrical moans, shrieks, and dirty talk of pro-level pornography are more than a turn-off; they’re painfully grating. Is that too personal of a confession for an amateur movie review? Either way, it’s the exact kind of uncomfortable intimacy you endure while watching the porn industry drama Pleasure in public. The opening credits play over harsh layers of pro-porno moans & dialogue, crewmembers’ names populating on a black screen in plain text. It sent a familiar shiver up my spine that I could not shake at the theater, since my usual exit strategy is muting my laptop. Pleasure is all about staring down the least comfortable aspects of professional porn production, from the grotesque theatricality of the finished product to the on-set exploitations consumers willfully overlook in order to enjoy it. It’s not the best drama I’ve seen on the big screen this year, but it is the most effectively & universally unsettling.
Sofia Kappel stars as the aspiring pornstar Bella Cherry, who emigrates from Sweden to Los Angeles in search of instant, XXX-rated fame. She succeeds in her mission, quickly graduating from OnlyFans solo shoots in an overpopulated camgirl hypehouse to decadent pro shoots in gaudy, overlit McMansions. Her ascent is neither fun nor easy. Cherry experiences exactly one wholly positive shoot in her short career. Most of her workdays are plagued by boundary-crossing opportunists who weaponize the language of consent & girl-power politics to pressure her into sex acts she is not comfortable with. She is alienated from fellow performers at every turn, finding little comradery among peers. Worse yet, her horrific on-set experiences serve as impromptu training courses that guide her own professional behavior, so that she quickly ends up violating the boundaries of other cloutless actresses in the exact same way. It’s not so much a rise-to-power story as it is a story of moral corruption & physical violation.
Pleasure works best as a sensationalist version of Kitty Green’s The Assistant, or maybe Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls: a scathing look at the abuses, exploitation, and monotonies of all daily labor, told through the microcosm of a niche, especially charged work environment. Its only setback is that it’s a little too eager to get its political points across in very clear moral & physical violations of its workers’ boundaries, often at the expense of fleshing out their internal lives. Director Ninja Thyberg describes herself as a former anti-porn activist who’s warmed up to the feminist potential of the medium. She approaches the L.A. porn industry with harsh the skepticism of an academic outsider. Even if individual production companies within that industry come out looking okay (mostly just Kink.com), there’s no way to view her ultimate assessment of the industry as positive, or even neutral. It’s specifically about structural & professional abuse of entry-level workers. Thyberg never feels like she’s condemning pornography as an artform or as a personal choice of profession, though, so her criticisms tend to target the big-picture exploitation of pro-porno’s capitalist sensibilities, which are directly relatable to pretty much any modern work environment, no matter how clothed. It’s not anti-porn so much as it’s anti-capitalism, which is likely the journey Thyberg’s activism has taken in her personal ideology.
If Pleasure were a character study of Bella Cherry as an exceptional example within her trade, it might have been a more emotionally devastating drama. Instead, Cherry is more of a symbol than an individual, so the movie is more about her environment than it is about her. Still, Thyberg makes Cherry’s journey incredibly tense from scene to scene. She effectively reverses the default POV of POV porn, showing the grotesque close-up details a typical actress would observe in her daily toils – mostly men’s feet, chins, and balls as Cherry shifts through various choreographed positions. Choral chanting worthy of The Omen overwhelms the soundtrack throughout Cherry’s monstrous, monotonous workdays. The most uncomfortable details are the weaponized catchphrases of consent, though, as men say things like “No pressure” and “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do” while clearly communicating the exact opposite message. There were some early giggles in my audience at the movie’s unrelenting vulgarity (especially during the opening credits), but those sounds gradually drained from the room as Cherry wandered deeper into the pro-porno labyrinth. We all left the theater in a chilled silence, which I suppose means Thyberg’s mission was accomplished just as efficiently as Cherry’s.