Sundance Film Festival: “Pleasure” Review
Film festivals carry an element of prestige, despite being one of the worst possible ways to watch and assess movies. When you’re watching a minimum of four films a day, films that would otherwise captivate you under normal circumstances become schedule fillers, the festival experience making it easy to wax lyrical about the work that provokes a visceral response, with quieter films debuting to shrugs that only evolve into rapturous praise if they receive a general release. But there is another side of this coin too; when a bold, provocative work is watered down to its most jaw dropping aspects, with early reviews after a festival premiere focusing squarely on this in lieu of a more incisive analysis.
Such has been the case with Pleasure, the striking directorial debut of Ninja Thyberg, which premiered to rapturous acclaim at Sundance (it had previously been named part of the “official selection” for the cancelled 2020 edition of the Cannes Film Festival). Thyberg’s film is one of the most audacious debuts in recent memory, an examination of consent in the porn industry designed to make the viewer interrogate their own relationship with the adult content they consume. The film’s masterstroke is its refusal to moralise, making the audience uncomfortable without becoming a hand wringing exercise in sex negativity. What a shame then, that a film designed to generate thoughtful discussion has mostly been talked about with regards to its most explicit sequences.
Sofia Kappel stars as a 19 year old woman who leaves Sweden behind to move to LA, in the hopes of making a name for herself in the cutthroat porn industry. Going by the stage name Bella, she slowly rises up the ranks, putting herself forward for increasingly degrading scenes in the hope of catching the eye of a hotshot porn producer, who can help her hit the big time. But at the same time, she seems increasingly distraught at achieving what seemed like a dream – but with no connections back home, and a self proclaimed desire to make it big, she insists on bearing with whatever it takes to make it.
Pleasure makes for an interesting companion piece with Michaela Coel’s acclaimed series I May Destroy You, a significantly less explicit but equally distressing examination of consent and adapting back to normality amidst the trauma of assault. The final episode of that miniseries, in which Coel’s protagonist imagines several forms of “revenge” on her attacker as a form of closure, even has a grim parallel here as Bella attempts to regain her agency on camera after several harrowing shoots, embodying a position of dominance she has never been given a chance to represent. But Thyberg also has the tricky task of doing this within an otherwise non judgmental examination of the porn industry, with many of the ensemble cast being performers and industry figureheads she’s met since making her previous short film (also titled Pleasure) back in 2013.
It’s a tricky balance, to highlight the mistreatment of actresses in a patriarchal industry while never demonising them (or the wider industry) through conservative, anti-sex work moralising. It’s to Thyberg’s credit that, rather than offering an easy answer, she’s more interested in exploring the wider complications and ethics to an extent it remains baffling how anybody’s immediate takeaway could be how explicit the film is on the surface. What could be nothing more than an arthouse cousin to Showgirls stays under the skin long after the visceral response to the film’s most graphic scenes wears off.
Of course, the film’s explicit nature is very much the point, with the announcement that A24 (who picked up the US distribution rights) will be simultaneously releasing a censored version feeling like a radical altering of Thyberg’s mission statement. For all the endless debate about the necessity of sex scenes in movies, there hasn’t been any recent film where they have been as intrinsic to the film’s overriding thesis; without the contrasting experience of Bella on sets with predominantly female and exclusively male crews, the film’s insights into the mistreatment of sex workers can only be neutered. There will be arguments about the level of exploitation in depicting graphic sex onscreen within a more harrowing examination of industry abuse – but it’s only by grabbing the audience’s attention in this way that it can offer a thorough critical analysis of the experience of young women on sets dominated by much older men. It’s the work of a filmmaker who has clearly immersed herself in this world, and has a long, complicated history with the subject (Thyberg has stated she used to be an “anti-porn activist”, but her beliefs evolved as she started researching the film back in 2014); to tone down would do the material a disservice.
It will also likely prove hard to describe Sofia Kappel’s lead performance, her debut screen appearance, as anything other than “brave”. Kappel and Thyberg worked extensively before shooting to work out how the most explicit, harrowing sequences would be blocked on set – but this doesn’t diminish just how accomplished this is for a first time performance. The way the actress manages to depict a stilted awkwardness on camera, a performative hyper-sexuality that continues to be broken into something unspoken and harder to shake even as the cameras roll as her career keeps rising to the next level, frequently reminded me of the same tightrope walked by Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights. For a debut performer and not an experienced character actress to pull this off is nothing short of remarkable.
More than just the mere sum of its most explicit scenes, Pleasure gets under your skin and stays there long after the initial visceral reactions wear off, only growing in power the further removed from watching you become.
Written by Alistair Ryer
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