Even the most devout of the Pornhub commentariat are well-aware of the workaday banality behind the scenes of their favorite blast of heaven. Mirroring mainstream filmmaking, just as it’s always done, porn has worked the metatextual tedium of travel, locations, and technical craftsmanship into an ever-widening ecosystem of fan engagement via social media and documentary peaks. If anything, there is more transparency in the adult film world’s relationship to the fantasies it transmogrifies into visceral thrills and billions of dollars than can be found among its respectable crosstown cousins. Streaming technology and cheap cameras have wrought an ugly surplus of POV scenes in which director, performer, camera, and viewer are collapsed into a single well-endowed and faceless recipient of pleasure. Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature Pleasure takes the banality of the porn set as a given. She quickly moves past the tired ironies of erotic titans playing Candy Crush between takes to survey the material reality of an industry which, like the women who act as its raw material, is worshiped and despised in equal measure.
Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) arrives in LA from Sweden with her stage name “Bella Cherry” already tattooed along her palm. She wants to be “the next big porn star” and quickly secures representation from a low-rent agency willing to take her on despite the meager list of things she’s willing to do on camera. Depending on who’s asking, she offers various accounts of her motivation: money, fame, exhibitionism, insatiability. Thyberg isn’t concerned with the question as much as she’s interested in the mechanics of anal dilators and the ethical spectrum of participation in a business built, like any other, on exploitation. Bella learns immediately that the misogyny and racism of the industry are codified in dubious paperwork that essentially revokes the right of consent and lists interracial sex as an undesirable fetish. But she pushes forward as Thyberg’s camera records her in often wordless contemplation of the financial and moral quandaries that dot her path.
Determined to secure a spot in the stable of superagent Mark Spiegler (himself), Bella schemes an unpaid interracial double-anal scene to juice her social media following and make a splash on the hub sites. Each scene is seen through Bella’s perspective, including her unrequited desire for a female rival, but the most indelible impressions are those made by the gauntlet of men she has to endure in the ascent. Thyberg’s decision to cast the film almost entirely with porn professionals gives the performances an unpolished, relaxed texture that teases the line between fact and fiction. The comically homely Spiegler plays himself as a cuddly ogre, an image that comports with the one laid out in the recent documentary about his career, Patron of the Tarts (2019). But there is a menace just below the surface, unexpressed but unmistakable.
The same vibe runs through nearly every one of her male bosses/costars. (The set run by a female director is by far the most professional.) The characters are clearly practiced in compelling distraught young women past their boundaries. When Bella clearly expresses distress on a set, the men in charge default to gentle caresses and the one-two of flattery and pressure. She is always free to go, they insist, but “saying ‘yes’ feels good, doesn’t it?” The effortlessness with which these tanktopped grotesques in bad hair dye and puffy musculature coerce performances from frightened teenagers no doubt comes from years of witnessing such transactions. It’s one of many ugly truths that ground Pleasure in its thoughtful critique of a deeply flawed, yet culturally indispensable American industry.
Pleasure opens today at Angelika Film Center followed next week by Nitehawk Williamsburg and other cities around the country.