Pleasure REVIEW – Discomforting and Powerful

Ninja Thyberg's film focuses on gender dynamics in the world of entertainment.


Pleasure follows 19-year old newcomer Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who’s travelled all the way from Sweden to America to become the next big adult film star. Kappel is boldly fearless as Bella, and we come to admire her ambitious and mercurial attitude towards her line of work.

Bella is initially disinterested in her housemates – she’s here to work, and they don’t appear to take things seriously. But after she gets some guidance on a photoshoot from fellow housemate Joy (Zelda Morrison), the two become really close, and it’s really heartwarming to watch their friendship blossom on screen. There’s a certain purity to it, held in contrast to the salacious nature of the industry both women are a part of.

Despite Bella’s willingness to work hard, it becomes apparent that if she wants stardom, she needs to expand her limits. This means engaging in more violent and brutal material, where expectations of how a shoot would go is far different from the reality of it. The point of Ninja Thyberg’s film is not that porn is bad – it’s that the entertainment industry has varying demands for men and women. Most of these shoots are tailored to the male gaze, which Thyberg highlights through the conceit of a man always having control over the camera, and there’s very little concern for the woman who has agreed to be objectified.

Thyberg deliberately does this in order to paint a contrasting picture when there’s a woman director onboard. The atmosphere on set is already immediately different – Bella is allowed to build rapport with her co-star, and while there is some form of submission on her part, there’s also huge concern for boundaries, with those around constantly checking in to see if she’s okay. This leads Bella to develop a misconception of how these shoots go, to believe that all of them would be handled in the same way.

While there’s a lot of focus on consent, and the apparent agency of the talent being able to stop things at any time, once again, the reality paints a very different picture. There’s a point in the film when Bella changes her mind because of the humiliating and violent things being done to her body, and suddenly, all the earlier friendliness and camaraderie disappears, with the entire conversation steered towards money and time wasting. The constant refrain from all these men is that she knew what she was getting into, she didn’t have to say yes.

Of all the scenes in the movie, this was the hardest to watch, especially since Thyberg frames everything in an almost documentary style. Kappel’s acting also makes everything come across as so real, and you can feel the shattering of Bella’s youthful idealism at this point. In an industry saturated with women all desiring the same thing as Bella, her rage and discontent means nothing when she’s easily replaceable.

After she’s disillusioned and wants to give up, she realises there’s nothing back in Sweden for her to return to, and despite her trauma, she has to find a way to make it work here. It’s at this point that we see Bella’s transformation, where she expands the limits of what can be done to her body so that she can become marketable again. Her friendships become secondary to her goal of stardom, and we witness a role reversal of sorts when the power in a shoot shifts to Bella. While some may feel that there’s some moralizing here, where Bella becomes the aggressor and enacts what was done to her before, it’s really just a reflection of the power dynamics at play, and how everything isn’t as equal and agent as we want to believe.

Review screener provided.

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Ninja Thyberg's film makes a powerful statement about gender dynamics in the workplace, and the blurred lines of consent even in the post MeToo era.