“Business or pleasure?” an American immigration official asks 19 year old Linnea – soon to re-invent herself as Bella Cherry – as she lands in Los Angeles from Sweden. Her dream is to become an international porn star and “pleasure” is her non-committal answer. But the opening sequences of the film are all about business – and, indeed, so is the majority of what we see. Pleasure doesn’t overflow with genuine pleasure.
The first walk-out at the screening this writer attended came just five minutes into the film, after Bella (Sofia Kappel in her film debut) had shaved herself for a shoot, consented to perform a sexually explicit act for a contract, signed on the dotted line and done her first professional shoot. There was only one more early exit, about half way through the film, but the fact that they happened gives you an indication of the style director Ninja Thyberg adopts for her debut, a variation on the small-town-girl-in-the-big-city story. Bella has no experience at all in front of the camera but, as we follow her journey through a world where the lines between performance and reality are increasingly blurred, we see her innocence dissolve in front of our eyes, to be replaced by something she was warned of when she started out.
What’s surprising about Pleasure is that it’s more interesting than you could ever expect, even if there are times when you might feel uncomfortable in your seat. Designed to arouse and titillate it certainly is not, with its portrait of a male-dominated industry founded on misogyny, abuse and toxicity, and its interest in the smaller details of the business adds a certain authenticity to proceedings. This is further re-inforced by the inclusion of actual porn stars and agent Mark Spiegler playing himself, surrounded by the Spiegler Girls, the title that Bella is aiming for. Getting it, however, means creating a new image for herself, pushing personal boundaries and losing her initial fresh-faced appeal. Yet, despite the make-up, the affluent surroundings and the jewellery, Linnea is never far from the surface.
The sense of a morality tale lingers over the film, along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”. But, in Bella’s case, the reasons for her porn ambition are never totally clear. It’s tempting to think they never existed in the first place, that it was something that looked glamorous and, as a naïve 19 year old, she simply thought it was a good idea. But once in the business, it’s hard to get out so that, while the ending is understandable, it’s equally underwhelming in the way it’s presented. After all that’s happened, it’s as if Thyberg’s script simply ran out of steam and had nowhere to go.
It’s inevitably a difficult watch at times, but Pleasure has more than enough to recommend it, not the least of which is an impressive performance from Kappel, who’s chosen an extremely difficult role to announce her arrival. And, despite its X-rated scenes, it has subtlety, perception and a clear point of view. All of which makes the impression that Thyberg’s ambition got the better of her even stronger. She simply took on a that proved too powerful for her. Rather like Bella herself.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance London | 31 July and 1 August 2021 | Dir. Ninja Thyberg| Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Dana DeArmond, Jason Toler.