• Sebastian Mann

Pleasure (2021) review

Ninja Thyberg's debut feature is a vulgar, sad, and often harrowing drama about making it big in the modern porn industry.

Working from her 2013 short film of the same name, which has been reworked into the script here, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure takes a frank look at the treacherous industry of modern pornography.

Pleasure is aptly an assault on the senses. It moves quickly and loudly, with its thumping score and glitzy camerawork. It is, by no means, an easy watch, with a shockingly powerful final scene that you won’t soon forget.

Sofia Kappel, who stars as the ambitious 19-year-old Bella Cherry, is phenomenal in her first film role. She embodies perfectly the blind ambition needed to succeed in such a cut-throat industry while retaining youthful innocence and insecurity, echoing Elle Fanning’s lead performance in Refn’s The Neon Demon, a macabre tale of the fashion industry that’s dressed up like a sleazy Giallo film.

But Thyberg directs without that exploitation edge, and where Pleasure succeeds most is in its empathy for the characters. There’s an authenticity to what’s on screen (quite literally, with just about everything shown bar penetration), mixed with a profound sense of sadness. As Bella climbs the ladder, striving to work with an exclusive agency where performers are expected to be on board for everything no matter how extreme, she sacrifices her friendships, her body, and ultimately a sense of self.

Yet Pleasure is not some sanctimonious, pearl-clutching condemnation of the modern porn industry. It certainly isn’t glamorous, nor fun in the way something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is (though it never tries to be, and would be all the worse if it were), but Thyberg never attempts to rationalise or psychoanalyse what Bella and her cohorts are doing beyond them simply wanting to do it. Everything is allowed to speak for itself.

As a debut, it is one of the most confident and impressive in recent years. Though it might be perceived as needlessly lurid, with constant on-screen nudity and simulated sex that is surpassed only by von Trier’s gratuitously vile Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2, there’s no other way of making a film like this - and no film like it.