PLEASURE REVIEW: NINJA THYBERG’S DEBUT DELIVERS AN UNNERVING LOOK AT THE PORN INDUSTRY

Warning: The following review discuss the subject of sexual assault and includes explicit terminology relating to the adult entertainment industry. Read at your own caution

Some films open up and you already know they are going to be a tough watch. This in no way is a negative thing it just means you better prepare yourself. Ninja Thyberg starts her fantastic feature debut Pleasure with a dark screen and loud audio of people moaning and clearly engaging in some intense sexual acts. Thyberg who spent several years studying gender studies and the porn industry knows that sex makes us uncomfortable (at least American audiences) and even if many consume pornography one way or another it is apparent that from the moment this film starts the stigma against watching porn is letting its guard down, but that doesn’t mean the audience still won’t cringe; this is a good thing. Pleasure is a movie that wants to engage in the world of porn, or adult entertainment if you will, and see it in the same light that many industries and workplaces have been brought to light in a #MeToo world. This notion of unfairness, cruelty and gender roles drive this film and delivers one of the year’s boldest, raw and unnerving pieces of art you will see.

Arriving at LAX, a young Swedish girl with a raspy voice that delivers the whole “innocent but curious” attitude is greeted at customs with the usual question “are you here for business or pleasure?” Yes it is a fun tongue in cheek moment that continues the Leo DiCaprio pointing meme, but it is also a strong introduction for the character of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel in her first role). While many films give us the innocent but soon to be broken girl, Cherry is instead all game for everything. Before we even see her settle into her new home, we first witness Cherry at her first shoot. A shoot where the crew is of only three men (one including real life porn star Chris Cock playing an alternate version of himself) and Cherry while nervous doesn’t fully understand the imbalance of it all. She is just happy to work and after everything is wrapped up Cherry proves to be the type of wannabe star that would rather take Instagram photos of her covered in semen before washing off. The all-male crew laughs and applauds; this girl came to work. Sofia Kappel herself is a force to be reckon with, it is not just her determination of Cherry but also Kappel’s ability to never lose sight of her roots and use it in her character. Kappel reigns from Sweden and in doing this film she is already a small fish in a giant filth ridden pond, this allows for both her and Cherry to always feel genuine in their curiosity.

It isn’t long however until Cherry sees the major differences in the industry in terms of filmmaking and safety. A segment involving BDSM is directed by a woman named Aliah (Alice Grey) and it is clear from the start the difference in on set behaviors from everyone. Thyberg emphasizes the female run crew that consists of makeup and props department constantly going through each moment of the shoot with Cherry. They remind her of her safety words, they hold her neck up as she dangles from the ceiling right up until filming starts, and when it is all over they immediately supply her with water a robe and ask her where she’d like to relax. It is startling how ordinary these questions should be and yet they are the first time she has heard them be said to her. When her costar Dex (Aaron Thompson another real life porn star) talks to her about a game app on his phone the moment is never seen as flirtatious but rather comforting and just spending time with your coworker. Unfortunately, Cherry also sees the industry through the other lens in a segment that deserves a trigger warning all for itself. Without going into too much detail (there’s plenty of that in the scene) it involves a basement threesome that clearly can only be described as rape (even if her agent refuses to see it that way). A highly unsettling moment but one that delivers the hard hitting truths about sexual assault in an industry that thrives off intense situations often performed as simulated rape fantasies. If theses scenes look so real on film it begs the terrifying question of why?

Cherry is not alone in all of this even if she thrives to be successful on her own. Staying at a model house she sparks up a friendship with her roommate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle) a young and vivacious woman from Florida, who unlike Cherry sees this also as an opportunity to form sisterhood bonds. Joy tries to give Cherry confidence defending her during a photoshoot where an overnight success girl Ava (Evelyn Claire another real life porn star) tries to mock her and take unsolicited photos of her. “Nobody takes pictures for free” Joy yells as she grabs her phone and then gives Cherry tips on how to pose. It is a humorous and comforting moment that reminds us that it will be the bonds these women can make with one another that will keep them sane and safe. Thyberg however knows the industry and she knows these friendships are always at risk. While some male filmmakers might have made it a film about women competing against one another, Thyberg instead shows how this male dominated industry divides women and plays every trick they can to belittle them. Even when Cherry first arrives a “helpful” tip is given to her by a male costar that warns her against making friends with her female roommates. While the intentions may be genuine it is already men setting up a woman to be fearful of the other women as opposed to embracing them. As Cherry finds more success she also finds dangerous situations that cause her to not just choose between her female friends and success but also break any bonds they have created through trust and protection. It could be easy to blame Cherry for turning her back against them and while she should carry some of the blame the film never looses sight in observing the powers of men that allow them to dominate over these women long before the camera starts rolling.

Thyberg brings a much needed female gaze to a film that is obviously quite graphic. Credit to the producers, filmmakers and Neon for pushing to release the film in its original NC-17 rated cut. The shots of Kappel are never gratuitous or exploitative even for a film that includes scenes involving double anal or a montage of cum shots. In a time where Pornhub actually has a competitor in the female run website Bellesa it becomes apparent that there is a movement to give back, and rightfully so, power to women in the sex worker industry both in front and behind the camera. Thyberg’s film is an advocation for such but it is also questionable in its final moments. An ending that will clearly lead to discussion (you can practically see people rushing to clear their search history) but also acknowledgement. The film is not meant to shame anyone who watches porn, (more people do than don’t after all) but it is clearly a workplace film. One that wants you to understand what goes into the making of the product you so often consume. Cherry’s journey may have found a boiling point, but for the future of porn this is only just the beginning, and if Thyberg continues telling these stories things may finally change for the better.

A-

Pleasure will be released in theaters in NY/LA May 13

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