Pleasure, the first feature film by Swedish director Ninja Thyberg (based on an earlier short film of the same title), gets one thing very clear early on, starting with a vagina being shaved in close-up. While it may not be pornographic itself, it is in your face, and it isn’t coy about its subject matter. Neither is it prurient, or indeed judgmental of porn. Depending on what your usual viewing habits are, this may be a film that you won’t be entirely comfortable watching in an audience with a bunch of strangers. But then, Thyberg doesn’t set out to comfort her audience.
Pleasure is the story of a 20-year-old woman from Sweden who goes to Los Angeles to become the next big porn star. Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) takes on the name “Bella Cherry”, finds herself an agent, and starts down the long road towards fame. While Thyberg aims for authenticity in her film, working with actors and filmmakers from the adult film industry, Kappel herself hasn’t been in films before (porn or otherwise). Nonetheless, she makes an immediate strong impression. Bella isn’t necessarily a particularly likeable character: she is naive but also arrogant in the way that people just out of their teenage years can be. She believes in herself and in her potential to become a big name in porn, and if there is something brittle and insecure about her, it’s less that she doubts her potential and more that she needs this one thing – to become a star – to the exclusion of everything else. Taking a hike up to the Hollywood sign? A waste of time, when she could be on a set, getting a new film done, getting more likes and followers, working on making a name for herself and getting an in with the other big names in the industry. So what if she is just one of hundreds of young women thinking that amateur porn is where you start if you want to become a star? She has the most important thing that she needs: an iron will that borders on the masochistic.
In depicting the porn industry, Thyberg doesn’t take the easy route of moralising. Pleasure doesn’t show pornography as always, inherently and entirely exploitative, even if its individual expressions often include some degree of exploitation. Yes, some of the shoots where Bella finds herself are clearly exploitative, not to say abusive and unsafe – but others, notably a BDSM shoot early in the film that is headed by a woman director, come across as genuinely focused on making the porn shoot safe, comfortable and even enjoyable for all involved. Thyberg also doesn’t psychologise Bella in facile ways: early on, when asked by a new colleague in the industry why she would want to make it in the porn industry, she makes it very clear that she’s not in Los Angeles due to past abuse or daddy issues or whatever the clichés are. While watching Pleasure, I never quite understood Bella or why she had chosen porn as her career path, but neither was I ever in doubt that this was her own decision and that she was sure of herself. She’s here because making it to the top of the business is her ambition, and she’s willing to go very far for this.
And trust me: Bella goes far. When she is told in no uncertain terms that vanilla, boy-on-girl porn will not get her noticed, she goes out to find more extreme shoots. She is willing to put in the work, even if she isn’t entirely clear at first on what this entails. At the same time, when she finds herself on a porn set with a frat-boy director and two frat co-stars that may talk the talk – it is her choice, she can stop any time she wants, their goal is to make her comfortable – but turn out to be less than committed to the ethical production of porn (the rapey sex they film clearly is meant to titillate due to its abusiveness, and their methods with Bella turn out to be devious and manipulative), Bella quickly calls an end to it and fires her agent soon after. She may perform in films depicting abusive sex, but she’ll be the one to decide what goes and what doesn’t. As much as she can, she will always try to be in control of her destiny.
However, while Thyberg doesn’t moralise her subject matter, neither are we supposed to read Bella’s story as empowering. Taking a step back from the butt plugs and interracial scenes (the film astutely points out the racist nature of one of porn’s most popular genres), what Pleasure shows us may on the surface look different from so many stories of a young person (usually a woman) wanting to become a star, but this difference is less substantial than it appears. Pleasure is no A Star Is Born, but its plot trajectory is not altogether different from many PG-rated films about the pursuit of fame. Bella has one ambition that eclipses everything else: she wants to become a star. She meets others who may have the same dream but who lack her ambition or endurance. She forms friendships, but can those friendships survive in showbiz? Or will she have to throw others under the bus if she is to make it in the business?
And this may finally be why Pleasure is more conventional than it looks at first. It may shock a vanilla audience with a remarkably frank look at the everyday realities of porn. Its look at the industry is nuanced. But it is a story about a young ingenue who risks losing her soul to her ambitions, and we’ve seen such stories before. What puts Bella at risk isn’t any evil that’s inherent in pornography: it’s the exploitation that is common to most stories about a protagonist who dreams of stardom. That story isn’t singular to the porn industry, it’s not really about cum shots and strap-ons. It is about the gap between the dream of fame and the reality of what becoming famous means in a hyper-capitalist society. Pleasure tells that story well, its direction and performances are strong, but in the end the story itself doesn’t change. What is a star if not a product? And what does it mean for someone to turn themselves into a product? What will they have to sacrifice – and will the person coming out at the other end be the same person that went in?