Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Pleasure” is about the pain of porn. Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel, in her debut), a Swedish teenager whose real name is Linnéa, moves to Los Angeles to work in the adult film industry. With no experience, community or safety net, she throws herself into a vicious occupation with only one real goal: to make it big in pornography. The film offers a pointed critique of the malfeasant structures of adult entertainment, literally turning the camera on the male gaze and investigating the sacrifices made by women in the name of safety. 

Most importantly, the film does not glorify or eroticize the industry, despite its uncensored portrayals of adult entertainment. In fact, this sort of demystification of porn prompts critical analysis rather than a physiological response.

Alongside Bella, the viewer progresses through the world of porn as a novice becomes a star. Bella approaches her first scene with apprehension that borders on fear. Trying to ease her discomfort, the director involved speaks kindly and softly, though his attitude belies a less than consensual atmosphere. This director minimizes Bella’s apprehension as “stage-fright” and explains that her “innocence” is good — it contributes to the first-time feel of the scene. In other words, her real fear is regarded as a plot device and thus dismissed.

Consent is one of the film’s most overt themes. The line between consensual and coercive is crossed many times. In fact, one must ask if Bella is ever able to give her uninfluenced consent, as she must make these decisions in a state of duress, concerned for her safety or her career

In one particular scene, the treatment Bella receives is not what she consented to. The director of “Pleasure,” Ninja Thyberg (“Hot Chicks”), depicts this graphic and degrading brutalization — which Bella later classifies as rape, only to have the accusation belittled — as a tangled mess of wild male body parts and angry male faces. The way Kappel so unsettlingly embodies her role in this scene leaves an indelible impression on the viewer, who has no choice but to share in her abject terror. And what does the director of this scene say to console her? “It’s just a show,” and “feels good to say yes, right?”

In the Q&A session following the screening, Thyberg spoke about consent in the filming process, explaining that consent is of course “crucial in every way.” She shared that Kappel was “a huge part of developing the script” and that “there was just a constant discussion and conversation going on the whole time about … consent and respect.” 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the fictional porn sets in the movie. Later in the Q&A, Thyberg pivoted to another essential theme, that of the dominant patriarchy. Men, in form and in concept, are an important part of the film, and Thyberg identified one of the film’s goals as “to show patriarchal structures within our society.” While the eye of the camera itself is personified and empowered as an amoral arbiter of success, the men behind those cameras are tacitly interrogated by Thyberg’s own lens. 

As in life, there are some men in the film who actively abuse their power and dominance, but every man is a beneficiary of structural inequity. Thyberg was fairly porn-positive during the Q&A, and said that “sex is a positive force in humanity.” 

She expressed a desire to change the dynamic in which “we tend to see sex as a threat that men do toward women … in order to move forward from that we also need to start viewing sex … as a positive thing (for women).” Her sharp and intelligent criticism is the foundation of the film’s success. Without this egalitarian and honest female perspective, “Pleasure” would likely have been as exploitative as the industry it sets out to expose.

As a film about female agency in a male-dominated profession, “Pleasure” consistently explores relationships between women. Bella lives in a “model house” with other adult entertainment actresses, though her career-first mindset puts her at odds with her housemates. The film begins in the customs line, where Bella declares the nature of her visit to the United States as “pleasure,” rather than “business.” However, it quickly becomes clear that pleasure is business, and Bella endures great pain in her effort to blur the line between these supposed antitheses.

When she is put in a position in which she risks losing her career by defending one of these women, Bella chooses silence and complicity. By the film’s conclusion, Bella’s confidence as a businesswoman sees her embody the aggressive and dominant “male” role in a startling parallel to the abusive scene she had described as rape. The film diligently works to humanize and demystify (producing both positive and negative revelations) without glamorizing the industry or intending to arouse the viewer. This balance is struck with precision and to impressive effect.

There is a wealth of conversation to be had about this film, far too much for one review. The film’s brilliance even extends to the score, which is inspired by Hildegard von Bingen in an attempt to contrast the film’s content with the “fine-art” version of female moaning. In an extraordinary acting debut for Kappel, Thyberg probes behind the scenes to see what filth hides in the crevices of the casting couch. 

“Pleasure” is a potent social critique, rich with feminist theory and artful direction. Beyond themes of consent and the male gaze, the film even explores the racism inherent to the adult film industry to form a comprehensive, measured and accurate portrayal. An important entry into the canon, this is the new required viewing for any student of sociology or consumer of porn and should certainly be regarded as one of Sundance 2021’s most brilliant films.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at rhorg@umich.edu.