Director / co-writer Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure follows aspiring adult film actress Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) — stage name Bella Cherry — in her quest to become the world’s most famous porn star. Linnéa is a 20-year-old Swedish girl from a small town with big dreams and the drive to achieve them. “I’m not here to make friends,” she tells her new roommates, who are also actresses. “I’m here to work.” Linnéa’s mother believes she has come to Los Angeles for an internship and an escape from her boring hometown. Linnéa herself isn’t motivated by the stereotypical traumas often seen in stories about sex workers. This is what she wants to do. She quickly realizes, though, that the glamorous side of the industry isn’t everything and that her boundaries will be tested in ways she didn’t expect.
Plot-wise, Pleasure is a fairly standard story about Linnéa learning what is truly important in the face of fame and all its hidden costs. Although she starts off cold and focused, she quickly gains a group of friends, particularly Joy (Revika Reustle), a Florida girl whose background seems more troubled than Linnéa’s. Joy’s experience and eagerness to teach Linnéa helps the latter break out of her shell, but of course that closeness eventually comes in conflict with forward career momentum for one of them. It’s a reliable arc.
Pleasure is about as sex-positive a story about the porn industry as they come, but that doesn’t mean it’s a porno, and it definitely engages in a darker side of what can happen to young women entering the industry. Their commodity is their body and performance. Time is money. Not every man is going to acknowledge boundaries. One particularly intense sequence involves Linnéa booking an extreme shoot, which ends up coercive and abusive. Thematically, the film is principally concerned with the concept of consent, and every sex scene is made inherently intense by the presence of men who might not respect that.
A24 reportedly picked up Pleasure but intended on editing the sexual content to achieve an R-rating. The filmmakers ended up finding NEON instead, and frankly, it’s impossible to imagine an R-rated cut. One of Thyberg’s clearest creative choices is how she shoots male erections with relation to the power dynamics Linnéa encounters on porn sets. The narrative hinges on the presence of naked men and whether their penises are welcoming or threatening. There is eventually an intense sequence involving a strap-on that brings everything to a thematic climax.
Apart from her star and a few of the supporting cast, Thyberg fills her movie with real women and men from all parts of the industry. That includes famous actors and actresses you might be embarrassed to admit you recognize (Reustle, for example, known as Zelda Morrison in the industry). Real-life producer Mark Spiegler and his “Spiegler Girls” agency also play a key role in Linnéa’s story. It lends an authenticity to the storytelling and a sense of endorsement by the industry.
While on one hand, the endorsement is great, it also feels like something of a double-edged sword. Linnéa’s rise follows a pretty straightforward path to stardom and regret, and covers encounters and situations you’d more or less expect from a high-profile film about the bleaker side of the porn industry. It’s odd to say this, and in no way means to dismiss the truths expressed in the film, but by the end, it felt like there isn’t a lot of depth to Pleasure‘s commentary — not unlike the way Fighting with My Family‘s WWE endorsement somewhat diluted that story’s power. There are so many stories to be told about women sex workers and the challenges of their careers, but in many ways Pleasure feels like a movie about a woman becoming a star in the same way Hollywood frequently focuses on movies about people becoming movie stars. The message boils down to the idea that if you’re willing to sacrifice and work hard, you can become the person you’ve always dreamt of being — and then maybe you’ll learn you were supposed to be someone else after all. In the end, Pleasure is not much more than that.