Here’s a film made by a creative team comprising mainly women with impressive credits from a range of critically acclaimed productions. For writer-director Ninja Thyberg this is her début feature after several years of research and short film productions. (Peter Modestij is credited as co-writer.) Thyberg’s fellow Swede, Sofia Kappel the young star of the film, makes her first film appearance. It’s a European co-production but made in English and focuses on a young woman attempting to become a star in the Los Angeles porn industry. The film has been screened to some acclaim at various festivals including Sundance and Cannes and is now being distributed in the UK and Ireland by MUBI. In the UK, the BBFC have given the film an 18 Certificate for cinema screenings and the film was shown in a cinema the night before it began streaming. The reviews of the film seem generally positive as do the ‘user ratings’ on MUBI, but I suspect that audiences who are less aware of what they have chosen to see may find it less to their taste.
Linnéa (using the name ‘Bella Cherry’) arrives in Los Angeles and sets out to make her way in the LA porn industry. The film’s title is of course ironic. “Pleasure” is Bella’s response to the Passport Control question about whether she is entering the country for ‘Business or Pleasure’. She soon seeks out an agent and prepares for her first shoot as an 18 year-old in a scene with a “semi-middle aged man”. She moves in with two other young women in the same business in what is termed as a ‘model house’. At first she is wary of her house companions but soon makes friends with them, especially with Joy and Ashley. At her next shoot, she also meets Ava who seems more stand-offish. Bella learns that Ava is a ‘Spiegler girl’ – a woman associated with the leading porn producer in LA. The narrative will then focus primarily on Bella, Joy and Eva. Bella’s determination to get to the top means she will have to seek out jobs in which she will be expected to perform in the hardest and most extreme forms of porn. She will take dangerous steps in order to do this and it will be painful in various ways, including testing her relationships with Joy and Ava. The narrative’s resolution is probably best described as ‘open’ in terms of the goal Bella has set herself.
I streamed the film and there were a couple of scenes I did find very difficult to watch. I then found the French Press Pack on UniFrance and, assisted by Google Translate, I found it a useful guide to the stated intentions of Ninja Thyberg and the experiences of Sofia Kappel. Thyberg tells us that she began as an anti-porn feminist activist at 16 (in 2000) but then studied film and gradually realised that instead of fighting against porn she could attempt to make different, alternative stories about it. She did make a short film about a porn film shoot titled Pleasure in 2013 that won a prize at Cannes, but the current feature was developed from 2014 onwards involving extensive research into the LA porn industry. The Press Pack material makes interesting reading and answers many questions about the film. The central statement, picked up by many reviewers is that the film is not about women as victims. The film does not focus on “Why does this young woman want to be a porn star?”, but instead on “What does she get from the experience?”. I confess that the ‘Why question’ was something that occurred to me. There is a sequence when Bella phones home to talk to her mother in Sweden. It appears that her mother thinks Linnea has an internship of some sort. Linnea is upset on the phone but her mother gives her sensible advice. Bella is not portrayed as a victim but Thyberg doesn’t want to explain exactly what drives Bella to take the steps she does. There seems to be a sense that Linnea is a young Swedish woman exploring what the American dream as a personal narrative might mean. Thyberg admits that Sofia Kappel is from a new generation that thinks and behaves differently than she did as a 20 year-old. It’s even more difficult for those much older, such as this reviewer, to understand!
When a film is about pornography, the inevitable questions are about whether the sexual acts depicted are ‘real’ or simulated. In this case, Thyberg used porn actors for many of the roles (arguing that they were actually better in the roles than mainstream actors). The scenes we see involve only simulated sex and they are shot in such a way that we don’t see any examples of what in porn is termed a ‘money shot’. Thyberg says she wanted to employ a ‘female gaze’, so while there are many nude shots of genitalia, both male and female in preparation for a shoot, the sexual acts themselves conform to mainstream conventions of what can be shown. But don’t mainstream representations objectify women in sex scenes? Here’s an extract from the Ninja Thyberg interview in the Press Pack:
In the film, Bella objectifies herself. She creates an image of a sexual object. To tell this story I myself had to objectify her. The challenge was to ensure that the film always took her side. It had to be faithful and honest to her.
I think I know what she means but this is surely something to be debated. ‘Real sex’ in any part of the film would mean an ‘R18’ certificate in the UK, allowing only screenings in licensed sex cinemas or sold through sex shops to adults only. Thyberg’s film includes an almost procedural study of the porn industry at work, including the consent forms and contracts etc. The film is straightforward in presenting the issues and debates around how it works. As an industry, porn in LA has shrunk somewhat with the explosion of access to free online porn. Thyberg argues that she did attempt make the shoots more colourful and bright than they might have been, she didn’t want to make pornography herself. At the same time her aesthetic decisions do not mask any of the harsh realities of the industry – which the porn actors and producers who appear in the film seem to have accepted. The only male character in the film who has a developed role is played by the Black performer Chris Cock. He, along with Joy and Ashley provide some humanity outside the circus of shoots and parties.
I can’t say I enjoyed the film. It only fleetingly felt erotic. Occasionally it is funny, mostly it is wince inducing. Even so, I’m glad I watched it and read the interviews which made me think about a wide range of issues. I am baffled by the attraction of the LA porn industry’s products as presented here. MUBI has streamed a range of ‘erotic films’ as part of its streaming offer, some recent, some from the archives. Many of these are quite boring I think, some are enjoyable if not profound and occasionally there are films that are important in making statements. The Argentinian feature The Daughters of Fire (2018) discussed on this blog is one such film and Pleasure may be another. It is intelligently thought through as a project and technically very good. I was intrigued to see that the film was shot by Sophie Winqvist whose work I admired on the very different Clara Sola (Costa Rica-Sweden 2021). Editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm has credits on other successful titles such as Victoria (Germany 2015) and Border (Sweden-Denmark 2018). The music by Karl Frid and Costume Design by Anna Wing Yee Lee are other major features of the film, but both a little beyond my understanding in this case. Finally, I must commend Sofia Kappel’s stunning performance as Linnéa/Bella – and Ninja Thyberg’s direction of her mix of actors from the mainstream and porn industries. Here’s a trailer designed to be suitable for a mainstream audience:
I was at Home last weekend and tempted to watch this, but I viewed a bizarre little number called ‘Earwig’ instead which was one for my curious collection of offbeat films. Not at all sure about the comment about real sex in films being restricted from distribution through the regular circuit. Another film I saw at Home a bit ago, called ‘Muscle’ and featuring Craig Fairbrass as a dodgy personal trainer, also proclaimed on the certificate that it (briefly) featured real sex and surely did. Also how do we classify Hanif Kureshi’s ‘Intimacy’ now which also featured ‘real’ if closely-choreographed sex ?
I’m simply quoting the BBFC guidelines John.
They state the following:
There may be exceptions such as the titles you mention. The BBFC does ‘interpret’ its own guidelines, I think. I think I make the point that the director of Pleasure wanted to try to avoid ‘real sex’ for her own purposes.