Review: Pornography drama Pleasure is the most ruthlessly provocative film of the year

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Sofia Kappel in Pleasure, opening May 20 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal.MK2


Directed by Ninja Thyberg

Written by Ninja Thyberg and Peter Modestij

Starring Sofia Kappel, Evelyn Claire and Mark Spiegler

Classification N/A; 109 minutes

Opens May 20 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal; available on-demand starting May 31

Critic’s pick

Given that Hollywood and the pornography industry operate practically side by side, with just a few miles of Los Angeles and a few layers of clothing between them, there is a curious lack of contemporary cinema about the business and pleasure of making a business out of pleasure. A Boogie Nights here, a Lovelace there – but those films use porn as the dramatic backdrop, not the thematic foreground. We’re told by the movies over and over again that we like to watch, except when the close-ups become too extreme.

Which is partly why Ninja Thyberg’s new movie Pleasure is such a welcome, fascinating, difficult and ruthlessly provocative thing to swallow. A sometimes cruel but always committed look at one young woman’s journey from European porn star wannabe to hardcore American XXX icon, the director’s expansion of her own 2013 short film of the same name is an engagingly brutal experience, no matter your familiarity or comfort with modern adult entertainment. And that it took a Swedish filmmaker to gaze into what is almost a wholly Made in the USA industry only adds to Pleasure’s many sadomasochistic pains.

Arriving in L.A. from small-town Sweden with only a suitcase and Instagram account to her name, 20-year-old Linnea (Sofia Kappel) is devoted to one thing and one thing only: becoming a XXX sensation under the name Bella Cherry. Although far from a sexual naif, Bella finds herself immediately over her head when surrounded by the porn sharks of the San Fernando Valley. There are unscrupulous agents, abusive male co-stars and countless female competitors who will do everything that Bella won’t in order to become the next up-and-comer.

Certainly, there are bright spots, including Bella’s gig on a BDSM film that is guided by a female director who is sensitive to the pressures of shooting such a thing. And Bella finds a gentle camaraderie with fellow actress Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), each of the women cannily aware of the fleeting power that their bodies offer. But these moments of independence, of sexual and societal autonomy, are constantly crushed by the demands of what Thyberg positions as an exploitive machine designed to grind.

Thyberg, who in her teenage years was a radical “anti-porn activist” (“We never hurt anyone, but we did get arrested,” she told Variety last year), has made a point of doing her research, going so far as to convince a handful of real-life porn professionals to appear in Pleasure as either facsimiles or themselves (including super-agent Mark Spiegler, who is perhaps unaware of how grotesque he comes off or, most likely, simply doesn’t care so long as Thyberg’s film widens his exposure to potential new clients). But there is a deliberate, relentless antiseptic-ness to Pleasure that can be punishing, leaving even the most prurient of porn apostates to wonder if this is the whole and naked truth.

As a conversation-starter, though, Pleasure hits all the spots – and sometimes soars far beyond thanks to the work of Kappel, whose performance is absolutely committed, fearless and entrancing.

It’s funny, a decade or two ago there might have been an incendiary furor about Pleasure: its full-frontal nudity, its simulated sex scenes, its affinity for on-screen ejaculate that only the Farrelly brothers can claim to rival. But in today’s digital-minded art house era, I predict only a flaccid murmur. Pleasure is shocking, it is discomforting. But it is also, in its own ways, commercially mainstream. You’ll know it when you see it.

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