Pleasure Synopsis: Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an adult film star, but she soon learns that fame won’t come easy as she harnesses her ambition and cunning to rise to the top of this mesmerizing and singular world.
As a newcomer to the states, Bella Cherry sets herself down the challenging path of porn superstardom in Ninja Thyberg’s 2021 Sundance holdover Pleasure. The sensationalism and industrial malpractice behind the adult film industry aren’t new to the big screen (Boogie Nights and Mope) – but filmmakers have often overlooked the perspective of women disenfranchised by the inhumane landscape.
Thyberg, who conveyed part of an articulate thesis in her 2013 short film of the same name, imbues much-needed agency into her overlooked subjects in a feature-length adaptation. Pleasure descends into the adult film industry’s objectification with haunting visceral and thematic results.
I commend Thyberg for exemplifying an astute understanding of her subject matter. Aesthetically, Thyberg and Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist intelligently incorporate the glossy, over-lit visceral allures of modern adult film scenes. The clever visual profile welcomes a harsh juxtaposition between porn’s sensual imagery and the underlying abuse occurring behind the scenes.
Pleasure never overworks its material into uncomfortably exploitative territory, allowing each bold artistic choice to reflect the raw discomfort of porn’s complex landscape. Every stylistic decision showcases commendable dramatic tact on Thyberg’s part as the filmmaker accompanies her disturbing imagery with a flurry of frenetic cuts and intimately-framed shots. What could appear sleazy in the wrong hands becomes a disturbing portrait of one of entertainment’s largest industries under Thyberg’s control.
Thyberg also showcases the textured minutiae of a day-to-day existence in porn. With equal parts empathy and gravitas, the writer/director depicts the ways aspiring young women suffocate under beratement and discarded treatment from their male counterparts. Thyberg deserves ample praise for not compromising her challenging NC-17 vision despite facing apparent pressures from other studios (A24 originally purchased the film from Sundance before selling it to Neon).
As the wanderlust dreamer Bella, star Sofia Kappel commands the screen in her expressive and physically demanding portrayal. Kappel conveys the glowing highs and degrading lows of Bella’s journey as she tries to stay afloat in a system that vyes to consume her. The unheralded supporting cast also deserves praise for ensuring authenticity in every frame.
Pleasure ultimately dampens some of its impact with a rushed and far too-clean finale. Still, the experience elicits a taunt and razor-sharp depiction of adult film’s dysfunctional climate.
Pleasure opens in limited theaters on May 13.
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