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Pleasure – An unflinching exploration of the porn industry’s dark heart

7 mins read

Pleasure is showing at Sundance London on the 31st July, book tickets here.

Is the world’s attitude to sex work changing? In recent years we have seen its inclusion in all manner of film and TV genres, from the cam-girl horror Cam to the popular teen-drama Euphoria and documentaries like After Porn Ends and Hot Girls Wanted. It’s a positive, if only slight, shift that seems to be having a snowball effect. It’s an underestimation to say we’re only scratching the surface, given sex work is one of the world’s oldest professions. And there is also a danger of misrepresentation, as we’ve seen with documentarians like Louis Theroux and the consequential controversy that followed his documentary. After all, there is an inherent problem with people becoming so focused on sex that they forget the work and business that sits at its heart. However, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure is all work and no play. 

Sofia Kappel’s Linnea is a 19-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swede fresh in L.A. with the ambition to become a porn star. Here, we have the typical story of so many who dream to make it big in porn. However, Linnea asserts that she is different from the other girls and will become the next big adult movie star no matter what. Her beginnings are deliberately cookie-cutter from Thyberg. We see the almost mechanical process that Linnea goes through as she creates her porn persona, Bella Cherry.


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Thyberg’s approach to filming Linnea’s shoots focuses on the clinical artificialness of everything; every action coached, every gesture and word micro-managed. There’s nothing sexy about what we’re watching. In fact, it feels closer to a medical procedure than two people getting it on. This offers a clever deconstruction of the pornographic lens that often masks its inherent artificiality.

Kappel’s performance is commendable as she splits herself into two halves – Linnea and Bella Cherry. Linnea is more reserved, quiet and contemplative, a deep thinker who rarely gives us access to her thoughts. But, when Bella Cherry takes over, she becomes an O-faced, ditzy blonde bombshell, vacant of anything other than her ravenous desire to fuck and to be fucked. It’s almost frightening the disconnect between the two, mirroring that seen in documentaries like Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life (2019).

Of course, just as with Agassi in real life, this separation is deliberately designed as an unstable safety net, one that gradually rips as Linnea further climbs the ladder of fame. And as she strives for more, the implicit coercion creeps further and further, the mask of Bella slipping to expose the vulnerable Linnea underneath. 


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If you’re familiar with Hot Girls Wanted or After Porn Ends, you’ll have an intimate understanding of the warping and impossible contorting of girls to fit a hyper-sexual mould, constantly pushing them to do more and more at the cost of their mental health. A trait that equally exists for men who enter the gay porn industry. Thyberg’s haptic approach to Linnea’s rough scenes feels violently close, as we possess Linnea’s perception. This terror only gives way to an empty bleakness as she’s coerced into continuing. But, by this point, Bella Cherry has been all but destroyed, and Linnea is forced to take her place.

We watch as Kappel becomes increasingly vacant, leaving us with a hollow vessel wandering through scenes. The result is a haunting performance as the life drains from Linnea with every step of her career. The greatest contradiction Thyberg implements is Linnea’s internalisation of her trauma. Her experiences gradually wearing her down to the point of being paradoxically unconvincing and convincing at the same time. Here, she continually reminds us that she wants this, she wants to be a performer, but Kappel’s eyes betray Linnea’s words. Does Linnea even believe what she’s saying, or is she too far gone to care? 


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At the heart of Pleasure is a detailed look at the implicit pain and suffering of being a porn star. We see Linnea repeatedly traumatised in scenes that are all too familiar to even the most casual porn viewer. Here, the word ‘rough’ is so fluid that it can be a comfortably contained kink scene, or it can be one shade away from full-on performative rape.

Thyberg exposes the lie that we’re constantly taught when it comes to porn stars. You know the one; they want this, get paid, and know what they signed up for. But that isn’t true. How can you possibly know what you signed up for when all you have is a singular word of monolithic scale? Kappel demonstrates this gradual wearing down, like a statue gradually crumbling with every hit, spank and hair-pull until there’s a hollow façade left. Pleasure takes a hard, unflinching look at the gradual self-destruction that occurs on the road to porn stardom, crafting a depressingly bleak journey that takes us further and further up this lustful ladder; its cost the spirit and mind, leaving only the shell of a body. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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