Sundance 2021: Pleasure, by David Bax
It should come as no surprise that any serious-minded film about the pornography industry is also going to be a good Los Angeles movie. Most of the time, when a filmmaker sets out to depict a city, they understandably focus on streets and public transit, the liminal latticework that connects citizens to one another across their shared territory. But Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure understands how, much of the time, existing in Los Angeles means inhabiting a series of disembodied rooms in a way that feels random when surveyed at large. Sometimes, these rooms are in tacky mansions in the hills. Usually, they’re in strip malls or industrial parks.
It’s amidst this arbitrary anonymity that Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) endeavors to rise through the ranks of porn stardom. Real name Linnéa (though that’s only uttered twice in the whole movie), she’s come from Sweden with her clothes in an IKEA bag and with no other aim than to elevate her chosen name to the top of the adult film world. Thyberg and Kappel present us with a subjective point of view, meaning that even as Bella’s experiences become more troubling, a part of us still wants to cheer her success, at least for as long as it remains what she wants.
Pleasure is not designed as a mere exposé but, in tracking Bella’s journey, it can’t help but take a critical stance in regards to pornography. It preemptively deflates the argument that the industry has safety nets in place by dissecting how legal protocols do more to shield the (mostly male) higher-ups from liability than the women from trauma. Actual, emotional support is only a pretext to getting Bella to do what these men want her to do and those safety nets disappear very quickly when a man’s financial stake is at risk.
Again, though, this is not the main objective of Pleasure. It’s actually a sort of coming of age movie and, as is common in that genre, it can often be funny–and in ways specific to its milieu. During the filming of a scene where Bella’s in the reverse cowgirl position, the camera suddenly cuts to her point of view; a look directly at her co-star’s feet.
Another hallmark of coming of age movies, especially those involving girls and young women, is friendship. Ultimately, this is Pleasure‘s deepest concern. After doing her first scene, Bella is warned by the male director not to trust other actresses. But, almost immediately, she forges a warm, safe and playful connection with her roommate, Joy (Revika Anne Reustle). When Bella’s filming a rough scene that gets out of hand, Joy’s absence is glaring. And for all off the terrible things that Bella goes through, the most devastating is when the industry turns these two friends against each other.