“Shocking” is a word that gets thrown around too frequently. But it’s all too fitting for Swedish director Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, a graphic, gripping, and unflinching drama charting the rocky rise of an ambitious newcomer to the adult film industry.
For many, the movie will be shocking simply because of that subject matter. It’s actually most notable and unsettling, however, because of how it uses an audience’s expectation of the film’s highly sexualized setting to forge a story about the corrosive nature of false or empty dreams, and about success achieved too soon. Expanding on an award-winning 2013 short film of the same name, Pleasure is buoyed and elevated by an outsider’s perspective which disengages from both the more voyeuristic elements of its narrative and many distinctly American judgments of them.
Newly arrived in Los Angeles from Sweden, 19-year-old Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) jumps right into sex work, taking the professional name Bella Cherry. After finishing her first scene, she asks for her cell phone to snap some soiled selfies, and later dubs herself #ProudSlut on social media. Sporting a “Girls Run Thangs” T-shirt, Linnéa is initially tentative and unsure of how to fit in with roommates in a house full of other performers, but finds a friend in Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who coaches her on everything from posing for photographers to producing her own video clips.
As she settles in, Linnéa fixates on Ava Rhoades (Evelyn Claire), a socially unapproachable but popular young performer. Ava is deemed a star-in-waiting due to her designation as the newest “Spiegler Girl,” the name for respected clients of a (real life) porn manager who are collectively known for not placing many limits on the type of work they accept. Wanting to “be the best,” Linnéa quickly abandons any self-imposed boundaries with respect to the scenes she’ll shoot, plunging into kink, rough sex role play, and, eventually, double anal penetration. These choices come with considerable tradeoff, however, both emotionally and psychologically.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights famously assayed the world of pornography, though it did so at a certain remove, as a period piece. Pleasure unfolds in the present day, but is less interested in serving as an expansive-canvas industry portrait than in using the business particulars, especially entry pathways for young women, as a means to explore the manner in which individual aspirations can be warped by the most extreme polarities of a diseased culture.
Thyberg’s feature debut, initially selected for the (subsequently pandemic-canceled) 2020 Cannes Film Festival before making its debut at Sundance in 2021, certainly isn’t preoccupied with either moral judgment or loss of innocence. Pleasure opens under a soundtrack of moans and coital noises, and, after Linnéa’s airport arrival and a scene of intimate shower grooming, throws its protagonist directly into sex work. There’s no great struggle (internal or external), or depicted recruitment. This is important when considering the movie’s relationship to the adult film industry.
It’s the film’s highly charged backdrop, including scenes of increasingly intense simulated degradation, that controls attention. But Thyberg and co-screenwriter Peter Modestij are interested in the rippling aftereffects and cyclical nature of abuse, and how one of the most natural ways of coping with past mistreatment is to pass up a chance to rescue someone else from exploitation, and in fact claw one’s way to a position of relative power from which you can now be the one doling out abuse.
In that respect, the events of Pleasure could take place in any number of industries. It’s about the psychological ramifications of sacrificing individual tenets at the altar of others’ beliefs, and directives. In exploring coercive behavior in a post-#MeToo era, it also shows how manipulators will adapt and thrive, adopting the tactics and even the coopted language of agency that will allow them to continue controlling and gaslighting the vulnerable.
If there are shortcomings to the script, they feel less active and more indicative of willful sidestepping—small bits that leave one wanting. Thyberg strives to avoid tropes of sexual abuse or domestic dysfunction among sex workers, which is a valid choice; to this end, the film even tosses in an early joke from Linnéa about being raped by her father. Later, experiencing doubt, she makes a phone call to her mother, and impulsively asks about leaving her “internship” and coming home. One could make the case that the fact her mom is never seen (and her father completely absent) is, implicitly, a commentary on Linnéa’s family of origin or upbringing. But this framing still feels like it lands a little in between, neither substantively unpacking Linnéa’s backstory or setting it to the side.
Slightly more nagging, Pleasure’s exploration of online culture also feels like it only skims the surface, especially relative to its industry of focus. Social media is a significant part of Linnéa’s life as a 19-year-old, and certainly for her career, as she leverages a larger following into getting “hip-pocketed” as a client by aforementioned agent Mark Spiegler. But the increased demands of this, in terms of time or how Linnéa feels about it, aren’t factored into the story in a meaningful way.
On a technical level, Pleasure is consciously uncomplicated, and marked by a blunt, unvarnished visual aesthetic. Whether capturing the industrial anonymity of San Fernando Valley locations, the spacious but largely unadorned wealth of various porn-shoot mansions, or even Linnéa’s present living circumstances, Thyberg and cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins tell the story in direct fashion, with uncluttered frames. This is a movie in which Los Angeles decidedly isn’t a character. This serves the material quite well, further contributing to a viewer’s sense of disquiet by leaving them with so few visual markers to grasp—though Twin Peaks devotees may notice the use of several cutaway shots to a ceiling fan, and their juxtaposition in relation to dark decisions Linnéa makes.
Kappel’s performance, her first, is utterly mesmerizing, though to dub it star-making might be misleading. There’s no doubt she is fiercely committed, and ably showcases a certain range, shifting back and forth between Bella’s professional compliancy and Linnéa’s focused ambition. Yet it is also a highly functional role. Less than any big moments of scripted catharsis, one’s emotional engagement is highly dependent on Pleasure’s stagings, and the parallel questions of consent they summon forth. Ergo, part of what makes Pleasure work is the level of comfort Kappel exudes in the midst of a movie that is designed to elicit such discomfort. That’s a credit to Kappel, yes, but also Thyberg.
Ultimately, what’s most special about Pleasure, what makes it linger in the mind, is the accomplished nature of its storytelling, which doesn’t yield to conventional plotting or a layperson’s suppositions about where Linnéa’s choices take her. There’s a weightiness to its ambiguity, which forces a viewer to reflect back more directly on the film’s themes. That approach marks Thyberg and her collaborators as talents to watch.