(4.5/5) A fearless and unflinching odyssey into the dark, twisted, and fascinating world of the Los Angeles porn industry.
In her astounding directorial debut, Ninja Thyberg bursts onto the scene with a film that is equal parts terrifying, electric, funny, and groundbreaking. Pleasure chronicles the journey of Bella Cherry (the brilliant Sofia Kappel), who has traveled from Sweden to Hollywood, determined to become the next big porn star. Bella’s motive is that she loves to be on camera, and she loves to f*ck. There’s no sob story, no situation that’s forced her into it - this is the career she wants, an empowering and affirmative narrative choice showcasing that sex work, for some, is the career path they’ve chosen with full agency. Her determination leads her into many downright terrifying situations, and Thyberg’s direction is relentless and captivating; thrusting the viewer into Bella’s shoes in every new and scary scenario she faces. It makes for an incredibly enlightening, intense, and immersive viewing experience.
Bella’s ultimate goal is to become a “Spiegler Girl,” as described by her roommate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who quickly becomes her friend and ally as they both try to break into the porn industry, as “The A-Listers” of the Porn World. To be a Spiegler girl means to be represented by Mark Spiegler (who amazingly plays himself in the film, as Spiegler and Spiegler girls are in fact real), but to get there, you have to be willing to do anything in the world of porn. These girls have no limits, but in return, they’re treated like royalty and make the most money. Once Bella finds out about Spiegler girls, she is determined to become one. She begins to push her limits, eventually reaching a point of willingness to do whatever it takes to break through. There is a particular sequence in which she goes to perform a violent rape fantasy scene that feels straight out of a horror film. Through black flashes, blurry vision, and the sounds of sobs, we are firmly in Bella's nightmare, watching her be violently choked and beaten, taken advantage of as a woman on a set with 3 men. It is unrelenting and incredibly violent, and ultimately so powerful in conveying what it would feel like to be in a situation like this.
This sequence is a climactic point for Bella’s character; she’s so distraught she almost quits, but after words of encouragement from her mother (who thinks she’s distressed about an internship), she instead decides to become even more relentless in her quest, practicing and training her body to push its limits and booking a big job by proposing to work for free, knowing it will give her the publicity and stardom she needs to present herself to Spiegler. The scene she’s to perform is considered one of the toughest, but everyone on set is incredibly professional. Still, it pushes Bella nearly to her breaking point, but she pushes through in another montage that so perfectly places us in her headspace. She shuts her eyes and takes herself somewhere else to make it through, clouds dancing across the screen to match her hazy state. She pulls it off, the scene goes viral, and it’s the fuel she needs to present herself to Spiegler and become a Spiegler girl. These porn set scenes feel incredibly realistic and true to life. Bella has experiences of incredibly manipulative, male-dominated sets, but she also has several positive shoot experiences, where those involved are professional and constantly making sure she’s comfortable. It speaks to the complexity and nuance of an industry that can be both empowering and exploitative, but is ultimately rooted in misogyny.
Once Bella makes it to the top, she tries to bring her friend and roommate Joy with her, requesting she be her scene partner in her first scene as a Spiegler girl. The male talent on set, who Joy had an altercation with at a party, assaults her on set, and Bella witnesses it. Joy tells the creatives what happened and asks Bella to back her up. This is a major moment for Bella’s character - will she choose her friendship with Joy and do what’s right, knowing it will likely cost her future jobs? Bella chooses her career, effectively ending her relationship with Joy. This is a creative choice that I found incredibly bold and interesting. At this point, Bella veers into antihero territory, willing to cut anyone to get to the top. It’s refreshing to see a female protagonist be so complicated. Bella never asks us to like her. She’s ruthless in her quest, consistently choosing herself and her career over making friends or keeping them. It’s refreshing to see a woman onscreen with such a ruthless persona typically reserved for men. And despite these things, you empathize with Bella because you can see that she doesn’t want to make these decisions, but she’s forced to in order to survive in such a cutthroat, male-dominated industry.
By the film’s conclusion, Bella has everything she wanted. She’s in the VIP section with Spiegler at one of the industry parties, a clever callback to a sequence early on in the film, where Bella attends one of these parties and ogles at the VIP section, desperately wishing she could sit behind those velvet ropes. We’ve come full circle, yet Bella looks anything but happy, gazing emptily in the distance as she sits exactly where she wanted to be at the beginning of the film. She has her dream career, but she’s sacrificed her friendships. Ultimately, in an ambiguous ending, it seems that Bella has realized being a Spiegler girl isn’t worth it, and she goes to make amends with Joy. We are left not knowing how or if she makes amends, or where she goes from here. I wanted the film to keep going - I wasn’t ready to leave Bella without knowing what happens next, but I don’t think wanting a film to go even longer is a bad thing. In fact, more films should leave you wanting more as opposed to running entirely too long. It’s a conclusion that leaves the viewer with much to ruminate on. Is making it to the top of an industry that doesn’t care about you even worth it, when you have to sacrifice so much to get there? It’s refreshing to see an examination of a relentless pursuit to the top through the lens of the porn world, an industry so rarely examined. Thyberg treats sex work with respect, as a real career filled with potential for wealth and success and fame, while also exposing the darkest elements of it. Bolstered by incredibly realistic depictions of life as a young adult film actor and a captivating central character, Pleasure is a necessary, intense, and masterful directorial debut.