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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Review: Pleasure


- Sweden’s Ninja Thyberg signs her name to a sucker punch of a debut feature which is carried by Sofia Kappel’s portrayal of a young woman’s rise within the Los Angeles porn industry

Review: Pleasure
Sofia Kappel in Pleasure

"There will always be people who want to bring you down, especially when you’re a young woman. That’s life, Linnéa, but you’re in charge. And when you really want something, you can do it." This advice meted out by a mother on the phone to her 19-year-old daughter and trying to cheer her up from the other side of the Atlantic is sound to say the least. But what this parent is totally oblivious to, is the fact that this young woman who’s newly arrived from Sweden isn’t working in a cafe, as she’s told her mother, but rather in the Los Angeles porn industry, under the pseudonym “Bella Cherry”. And worse, her aim is to rise up through the ranks of this roughest of environments, which Ninja Thyberg pulls apart without concessions, but with plenty of cinematic panache, in her shocking first feature film Pleasure [+see also:
interview: Ninja Thyberg
film profile
, which was awarded the 2020 Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection label and has been unveiled in the 37th Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition and the 44th Göteborg Film Festival.

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When Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) sets down her suitcase in the City of Angels, the pretty blond straight away sets the tone ("what do I need to know to become the next big porn star?"), before entering into a contract with an agency ("you know that you can ask for filming to stop whenever you want? – yes") and giving her consent to engage in explicit sex acts. In exchange, she is paid 900 dollars and offered lodgings in a shared house with three other girls: Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), Ashley (Dana DeArmond) and Kimberly (Kendra Spade).

After a stressful first day of filming ("you need to get over that, but don’t feel too pressured. I actually need you to be a little bit shy for this scene. We need that innocence, that nervousness"), Bella discovers the inner workings of a universe where hierarchies and access to fame (and therefore to a more luxurious and “protected” work environment) are dictated both by the level of the hardcore acts carried out and the volume of followers you have on social networks ("you don’t have a fanbase; we’re looking for girls who can draw in crowds and I don’t think you’re one of them"). To reach her goal of becoming a "Spiegler girl", joining the ranks of the most powerful agency in the business which notably represents Ava (Evelyn Claire), Bella’s path will be strewn with painful setbacks and sacrifice, but it will also drive home the need to take control.

Harbouring several particularly hard-to-watch scenes, Pleasure is an unflinching film which dissects Bella’s incredibly harsh initiatory journey from both an entomological and a female point of view, making the porn scene of the late 1970s depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights look like something akin to a Care Bears cartoon. Never judging her characters (despite the host of manipulative perverts hiding behind a veneer of professionalism), Ninja Thyberg manages to transpose this documentary-flavoured material, which is as authentic as it is merciless (in terms of its film shoots, physical preparations, excess partying, the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, the full cast of the film who hail from the porn industry, with the exception of the protagonist, etc.), into a fictitious journey (based upon a screenplay penned by the director and Peter Modestij) which is brilliantly directed, with its alternation of scenes from Bella’s “normal” private life shared her housemates, with scenes conveying the always harsh and sometimes terribly cruel reality of the "performances" required by the profession.

Displaying formal mastery at all levels (with wonderful photography signed by Sophie Winqvist Loggins, editing which plays skilfully with the limits of endurance and voyeurism, and imposing music from Karl Frid, as well as extracts from others including Goran Dahlström and the duo Para One - Léonie Pernet), Pleasure is a socio-melodramatic, ultra-realist work which is brutal, to say the least, but which offers an infinitely modern peak behind the scenes of an industry where dreams of glory come at a heavy cost.

Pleasure is produced by Plattform Produktion alongside Film i Väst, SVT, Lemming Film, Grand Slam Film and Logical Pictures, with international sales entrusted to French firm Versatile.

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(Translated from French)

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