This article appeared in the May 12, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg, 2021)

Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s first feature, lives up to its name—though not in the carnal ways one might expect. Certainly, the film drips with sex and its sundry fluids—so much that this story of a Swedish amateur performer (played by Sofia Kappel, Scandinavia’s answer to Chloë Grace Moretz) trying to earn her keep in California’s Porn Valley was shuffled from A24 to NEON for distribution after being threatened with an NC-17 rating. But beyond the performative groans that accompany Pleasure’s opening credits, its endless rows of lucite Pleaser heels, and generous full-frontal nudity, the film’s greatest pleasures are those experienced interpersonally between girls who sell sex on the screen. Sean Baker may have nobly devoted his oeuvre (StarletTangerineRed Rocket) to the adult entertainers who walk among us, but seldom do we see these titans in community: among themselves, decidedly unsexy, and taking a load off.

Propelled by Karl Frid’s ecstatic electronic-classical score, Linnéa, AKA Bella Cherry, descends upon Los Angeles, determined to leave her mark on the city’s adult industry. It’s a world that moves with Ferrari-like speed: there is an endless stream of brassy girls (all in it for reasons more sophisticated than partaking in the field’s significant revenues), infinite erotic niches in which to devise a personal brand, and a retirement age that approaches just as one’s civilian counterparts are landing their first grown-up desk jobs. This potentially bleak reality is conveyed with a priceless irreverence in Pleasure: a Mylar “Happy Birthday, Grandma!” balloon is lovingly gifted to fortysomething Ashley (Dana DeArmond), the oldest resident of the C-List “model house” where Bella first crashes. Later, deftly circumventing teary sentimentality with down-home humor, house resident Joy (played with aching tenderness by porn star Zelda Morrison, billed here as Revika Anne Reustle), silently sizing up her modest career trajectory against Bella’s, cracks jokes about her worn-out orifices while applying makeup. The challenges of commercial film actresses—the coercion of the casting couch, endless comparisons to the newest hot young thing, the studio disinterest that comes with aging—are present in mainstream pornography too. The key difference is that the bulk of the performative burden in porn rests on the body, a fact that Pleasure explores with wit and honesty.

Initially, Bella’s hustle matches the backbreaking pace of mainstream American pornography. She enthusiastically signs on for a shoot with a man old enough to be her father, taking selfies of the facial aftermath to make her human capital go the distance on Instagram. Thankfully, Thyberg seems to understand the gender inequity of the industry, and is reluctant to make any grandiose moral statements about the exploitation of women in porn. As Bella herself says, she loves cock. Her reason for choosing this line of work is simple—she enjoys being watched—and ultimately irrelevant. Likewise, her relations with male colleagues (elite co-stars, managers, camera guys, fluffers) are nothing short of amiable and professional, even when shoots prove physically taxing, or when managers mumble about the drama caused by female starlets befriending one another. Bella’s stamina and good behavior pay off, eventually permitting her to join the ranks of Ava (porn performer Evelyn Claire), a belle noire over whom she swoons even as her housemate pals roll their justifiably jaded eyes. They know that Ava’s role is not all that it is made out to be, its omnisexual projection best suited for a girl lacking personality or convictions. Bella’s career upgrade comes with a caveat: like Ava, she must be game for anything on camera. While Bella consents, her blind, blonde ambition inevitably causes her to violate not just her own physical boundaries but also, more egregiously, those of another woman.

Instead of delivering enlightenment through dialogue, Pleasure elects to show the gender tensions and elisions of porn through the spectacles of porn itself. As she climbs the ranks, Bella’s graphic shoots marvelously interrogate the synthetic lines between pornography and auteur-driven cinema, the erotic and the artistic. An exquisite shibari shoot in which Bella is suspended from the ceiling shows the satiating possibilities of non-penetrative sex, and the tenderness with which sadomasochism can be executed; the classical aspect of the score comes to the fore here, reaching jubilation in tandem with the restrained performer.

During another shoot, a gang bang takes a complex and queasy turn. A reluctant Bella forces herself to go through with the scene, and her male co-performers offer pep talks during breaks, amping her up to get the job done. Though Bella repeatedly consents, questions of coercion hang over the sequence, intentionally unanswered, in large part because they have no easy answers. Is the threat of losing work or developing a bad reputation driving Bella to continue a shoot that will feel to some viewers as harrowing as the pinball-machine scene in The Accused? And what does that make of consent? Is this free will?

Pleasure’s most explicit moments are greater than its genre tropes (girl-next-door, interracial, sadomasochism, the gang bang), and become increasingly complex when race and sexual orientation enter the picture. In what feels like the film’s most teachable moment, Bear (adult performer Chris Cock), a star on erectile-dysfunction drugs, gingerly coaches Bella through an interracial double-anal scene with him, her first of either variety. By pulling back the curtain on the porn shoot, Thyberg reminds us of the humanity behind its seemingly superhuman stars. (“It’s never been done before,” Bella later brags with a bat of her lashes.) To this point, she has consented to these jobs to diversify her portfolio—to prove to herself (and others) what she is willing to do on camera. The profound gestures of care between performers are irrelevant to this ambition. At this pinnacle, she inevitably reaches a breaking point after a girl-on-girl shoot with Ava, the performer she has admired and—as it becomes tragically clear on set—desired. It is not sex that is the problem. The problem is losing sight of everything else, including, and perhaps especially, the humanity of the other person involved. This quandary is as old as the act itself, and Thyberg has crafted a deserving fable around it.

Tomasin Fonseca is a film critic based in New York City; her work has been published in The AdvocateThe Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.