There are detailed, varied sex scenes throughout Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s feature debut set in the Los Angeles porn scene, though none of them — the amateur shoot, the bondage and submission scene, the abusive threesome, the interracial video, the girl-on-girl setup — is shot in a way that would ever be described as sexy. Thyberg, a Swedish filmmaker expanding on a 2013 short of the same name, isn’t interested in the sex as it will be eventually consumed in its finished product, as spectacle. Her focus is on the sex as it’s undergone by the people making it, as work, and like any workplace, a porn shoot is only as safe and tolerable as those in charge make it. Early in her forays into the industry, Pleasure’s naïve but ambitious 19-year-old protagonist, Linnéa (played by first-time actor Sofia Kappel), has a great experience during a woman-directed kink scene in which she’s tied up and humiliated by a co-star who chats with her about his favorite mobile-phone game between takes.
She makes the mistake of assuming it went well because of the type of sex she was having, not how safe and supported she was made to feel. When she signs on for another rough job, this time with a far less communicative crew, the line between performing and assault gets erased, and she leaves a sobbing wreck. Everyone Linnéa works with is, by definition, a professional, and Pleasure explores the structures the adult-film business has built up for its own and its workers’ protections, like the affirmations of consent and proof of age that are committed to video before her first shoot. But despite Linnéa bringing up the term like a shibboleth, what she learns over the course of the film is that being a professional just means someone’s getting paid, not that they’re incapable of being coercive or breaching boundaries.
Thyberg clearly set out to create a hysteria-free look at the industry, taking on the challenge of critiquing structural issues without casting judgments on the idea of having sex on camera. Pleasure succeeds at this, though not without a cost. It’s a clear-eyed treatment of porn wedded to a character study that never comes to life. Linnéa, who aims to establish a career for herself under the stage name Bella Cherry, feels more like a means of navigating the business in which Pleasure is set than someone whose choices fuel what happens. It’s not because of Kappel, who’s incredibly game and has a watchable heart-shaped face that recalls Chloë Grace Moretz. But beneath all the bold subject matter, Pleasure is a disappointingly standard cautionary showbiz story about someone who pursues her dream of stardom with single-minded intensity until she realizes the pursuit has turned her into someone she doesn’t like.
Linnéa comes to L.A. from Sweden to be the next big porn star, though her desires soon crystallize around the specific goal of becoming a Spiegler girl, a performer signed to top agent Mark Spiegler (playing himself despite some not especially flattering framing). A chance encounter with Spiegler’s latest signing, a haughty beauty with vintage pinup vibes named Ava (Evelyn Claire), gives Linnéa something to strive toward as well as a rival to take down. While Ava seems genuinely unfriendly, Linnéa has a tendency to try out pick-me truisms without the conviction to back them up. “I’m not really used to hanging out with girls,” she tells two male colleagues when describing the house she’s been sharing with other up-and-comers. “I’m not like the rest of these girls!” she insists when pitching herself to Spiegler on the phone. Despite her protestations, it’s not long before her roommate, a bubbly Floridian named Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), wears down her defenses and becomes her friend. Joy and her other housemates offer a promise of sisterhood that runs counter to the lessons Linnéa has internalized about other girls as obstacles to climb over.
Pleasure tries to leave Linnéa as something of a cipher in defiance of the cliché that someone needs a reason to want to do porn; she even teases a colleague with an invented story about childhood abuse before telling him, “I’m just out here because I want to fuck.” But a #fuckjantelagen hashtag and a distressed phone call with her mother (who thinks she’s doing an internship) hint at someone who felt restless and smothered by the community she grew up in. She’s too specific to be an everywoman yet never quite filled out as a character, hovering somewhere awkward in between in a way that matches the film’s mix of the clinical with occasional attempts at emotion. Pleasure delves into the intimate details of different bodies being fit together in service of audience desires — when the camera offers a close-up of genitals being shaved, it lingers on the dot of blood welling up after a too-hasty swipe of the razor. But as a viewing experience, it remains aloof and very much in its own head.