If you want porn, there’s Pornhub, if you want a frank, unapologetic drama about the porn industry, try Pleasure, a Star Is Born (or not) story of a 19-year-old Swedish blow-in trying to make it in LA.
Cocks and pussies are not prominent, in other words, though there are enough of them to convince us that director Ninja Thyberg has done her homework (she spent months gaining the trust of people in the biz), and in any case this is the story of wide-eyed, fresh-faced Bella trying to become a “star” rather than just a regular porn actor.
Coercion and consent are what this is really about, though, and Pleasure hints at the gap between the two in the opening scene – Bella (Sofia Kappel) arrives at the US border and is grilled by immigration. Is she here for business or pleasure. “Pleasure,” she replies, with a half-ironic shrug, as if it were negotiable.
It turns out it is. In another early scene we see Bella being taken on by an agent. He films the entire interview, for the record. He tells her what she’ll earn, asks her explicitly if she’s consenting to have sex with people, lists a series of sex acts and aks her to say whether she will or won’t perform them, and then informs her that once she’s working she can, at any time, bring any shoot to a halt just by speaking up.
Thyberg’s film is set in the space between that contract and the day to day reality of life in the porn biz. As in any job there are explicit and implicit aspects to this deal – play along and you go far, make a fuss and you’ll find yourself frozen out. Bella’s sentimental education consists of finding out how far she’s prepared to go to make it, and that includes more dicks than she’s expecting in places she wasn’t expecting them, plus what’s coyly referred to as “rough stuff”, scenes that are hard to watch.
The rough comes with the smooth. This is also a story of a young woman in a new town, making new friends, like Joy, with whom she shares a house. Joy (Revika Reustle) is the more seasoned performer and does it all – anal, DP, gangbangs, blowbangs, she reels it off as a gapless list to anyone who asks – but she’s also funny, smart, loyal and nice, a good friend. And Bear (Chris Cock, this might just possibly be a porn name), who she meets on her first shoot and who turns out to be both a decent guy and wise counsel.
For Kappel this is an in-at-the-deep-end debut, a tough gig, and she’s won a couple of awards for her performance as the girl who, when asked, baldly says she’s in the porn biz “because I want to fuck”. She deserves a lot more. Without making it too obviously overt, Kappel operates in the virgin/whore territory. Her Bella is a frighteningly ambitious wannabe but also, at some level, a girl out of her depth.
Jokes about the wooden acting by porn stars (all those German plumbers!) have to be parked. There’s a lot of good stuff here – Revika Reustle (porn name: Zelda Morrison) is particularly good as Bella’s new bestie, all firecracker humour and a funny filthy mouth. Chris Cock is warm and humane as Bear, Evelyn Claire does a lot with very little as the hot female star Bella aspires to be, setting up the expectation that we’re entering All About Eve territory. Mark Spiegler plays himself, a hotshot agent with a roster full of girls, and is another natural, plausible vibey presence.
It’s obviously not for the prurient but Thyberg errs on the side of caution. Seen one cock and you’ve seen ’em all appears to be her working axiom (there were maybe three?) – gratuitous sex is not what this film is all about, for all its acres of naked (young female, middle aged male) flesh.
And at key moments – grim moments – Thyberg shifts the gaze from male to female with point of view shots from Bella’s perspective. In scenes like these Pleasure becomes painful viewing.
Pleasure – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022