Pleasure, the first feature by Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, is an expansion of an earlier short. It is set amidst the L.A. porn industry, where sex acts of all varieties have been reduced to either mechanics or choreography. It is also the debut for Sophia Kappel, a husky-voiced, self-assured beauty who outclasses the real working porn stars with whom she is embedded. Her character, Bella Cherry, is a dubious heroine in quest of fame and fortune: she believes that she can somehow rise easily in the industry by virtue of being Swedish. Asked at customs whether she is arriving for business or pleasure, Cherry pauses and, with a guilty grin, purrs “Pleasure.” The word and the title belie the protagonist’s experience.
Men remain mostly in charge of the business and casting. Male actors (and I use the term loosely) with names like Chris Cock and John Strong stand around, their wagging appendages in hand as they prepare for their entrances. Directors, like ringmasters, instruct the performers on what to do with their faces and where to position their limbs. “Don’t look like you’re enjoying it too much,” Cherry is told in her first scene. She is vetted and warned about the stakes and risks involved. Mark Spiegler, a top porn manager and agent (and the founder of Spiegler Girls), plays himself. Despite his resemblance to a toad, the ladies love him. Apparently, Spiegler is the best in the business at negotiating porn contracts, making stars, and keeping trouble at bay.
Female performers are generally treated with dignity and respect until the cameras roll. Perversity and degradation ramp up in the film until Cherry passes out in a scene that borders on rape. Dauntless, she persists in subjecting herself to all sorts of indignities in scenes made to be efficient vehicles for masturbatory purposes, spectacles of power, subjugation, and body parts.
Back at their apartments, the talent (a loose term referring to anyone in front of a camera) giggle, gossip, and dream of fame. They play the role of starlets at conventions where horny men pay for selfies with their favorite “stars.” Male and female, the porn performers look spent. Even Cherry begins to lose her Nordic sheen. At first, she is buoyed by the freedom she finds in taking charge of her own sexuality. Camille Paglia might agree with that rationale, but in practical terms it means wiping yourself off, douching, and then moving on. A wise woman in the biz acts with strategic aplomb — make some money and then get out with an intact soul.
Films directed by women about porn usually expose the grim, exploitative side of the business. Recent examples would be Ronna Gradus and Jill Bauer’s 2015 documentary Hot Chicks Wanted and Janicza Bravo’s 2021 Zola. Pleasure is not particularly titillating — unless humiliation and animal husbandry are your cup of tea. Still, it has the merit of not being overly moralistic. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about what is a venerable fact of life. This is a 90-billion-dollar global industry whose product is consumed every hour of every day. As the expression goes: “Anyone who loves the law or sausages should never watch either being made.” No pun intended, that holds true for the business of pornography as well.