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A young woman arrives from a distant land in the capital of a certain entertainment industry and ascends the ladder of success, only to lose a bit of her soul on each rung of the climb. That, of course, is the plot of Showgirls, but it’s not like Paul Verhoeven, or anyone who’s written a version of Faust, ever patented the concept. This means Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg has room to put her own stamp on this classic rags-to-riches-to-nihilism-and-disillusion narrative arc with Pleasure, an explicit account of an ambitious young woman’s journey through Los Angeles’ pornography industry, starring 22-year-old Sofia Kappel.
Grounded in years of meticulous research into the porn scene and cast with actors drawn entirely from that world except for Kappel herself, Pleasure is very persuasive in its evocation of the milieu. It captures the kindly on-set camaraderie of crew members, but also the insidious coerciveness that goes into shooting more extreme, rape-adjacent material. Throughout, Thyberg switchbacks between humor and humiliation with unsettling abruptness, but withholds judgement of the characters’ choices to create an ethical Rorschach test, prompting reactions that may be more revealing than the film itself.
In the press notes, Thyberg writes about initially approaching the subject as an anthropologist, but gradually found herself getting closer to the people in the industry. Clearly, ever since making her 15-minute debut short — also called Pleasure and also set at a porn shoot — which played in Cannes’ Critics Week in 2013, she has been mulling over a way to represent sex work in a positive way that grants women in the business agency and power. At the same time, she wants to acknowledge the patriarchal underpinnings of the industry, and the thorny complications around the notion of consent when economic power is so unevenly divided between performers and producers.
That’s a teensy, tiny, very fine feminist needle to thread. In my view, Thyberg doesn’t quite pull it off and the film feels like yet another bit of ambivalent if sophisticated cinematic sex tourism, but with a particularly blank, enigmatic female protagonist. HBO’s recent series The Deuce covered much the same territory with more intellectual heft and dialectical range, albeit with the luxury of many more hours to explore its topic and characters (but with not nearly as many erect penises).
Styling herself Bella Cherry, Kappel’s protagonist is first met going through passport control at LAX, where the customs agent asks her the film’s key existential question: Has she come to the United States for business or pleasure? The answer niftily cues up the title card, while what follows always keeps us wondering if Bella really finds pleasure in her chosen profession or if she has a more elusive motivation. Early on, colleague Bear (Chris Cock) asks her what’s her story, and she begins to tell him about being raped her father, only to laugh it off as a joke. Later on, a phone call to her mom (Eva Melander) back in Sweden offers only a minute amount of insight into Bella’s past, suggesting she’s always been something of a loner.
It turns out that Bella’s lone-wolf nature makes her oddly suited to the predatory world she’s chosen. Despite the fact that so much porn output features girl-on-girl action, designed largely for the delectation of straight men, women are not always encouraged to actually love and support one another. Warned early on by Bear that some of her roommates, all signed to the same management company, may turn out to be backstabbing bitches, Bella will find that betrayal is a key theme in her story.
As it happens, the supporting turns from adult film performers, such as the aforementioned Chris Cock and Revika Reustle and Dana DeArmond as Bella’s roommates Joy and Ashley, respectively, represent some of Pleasure‘s true delights. Well used to improvising in character and fearless on screen, they bring a salty, self-confident naturalism to the proceedings, like they just wandered in from an early Harmony Korine or David Gordon Green film shooting across the lot. The score, mixing raucous rap and classical coloratura noodling, is another jolt of dissonant fun in a film that keeps tripping up the viewers’ expectations, right up to the utterly abrupt and quite strange final moment.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler, Lance Hart, Mark Spiegler, Eva Melander
Production: A Plattform Produktion production in co-production with Film i Vast, Sveriges Television, Grand Slam Film, Lemming Film, Logical Pictureswith support from the Swedish Film Institute, the Netherlands Film Fund, the Netherlands FilmProduction Incentive and Nordisk Film och TV Fond.
Director: Ninja Thyberg
Screenwriters: Ninja Thyberg, Peter Modestij
Producers: Eliza Jones, Markus Walta, Erik Hemmendorff
Executive producers: Pape Boye, Violaine Pichon
Director of photography: Sophie Winqkvist Loggins
Production designer: Paula Los
Costume designer: Amanda Wing Yee Lee
Editors: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen
Music: Karl Frid
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