Sundance 2021: 'Pleasure' is a Brilliant Parable About Soulless Lust
by Alex Billington
February 9, 2021
Holy smokes what a film. Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg brought her feature directorial debut to the Sundance Film Festival this year and it unquestionably made a splash. The film was originally chosen for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival but never premiered because it was cancelled. If it would've premiered at Cannes last year, the whole town would've lost their shit over this film. For sure. It would've been THE hot ticket of the festival. It also became THE hot ticket of Sundance this year, and I'm lucky I had the chance to catch it. Pleasure is an extremely explicit journey deep in the pornography industry in Los Angeles. But it's much more than just that, and when you start to pull it apart and examine what's really going on in the film, it becomes a metaphorical reference for all industries and all kinds of different pursuits in life. We follow this woman who wants to be the biggest pornstar in the world, but realizes that's not as glamorous as it seems.
In Pleasure, Sofia Kappel stars as a young Swedish woman who goes by the porn name "Bella Cherry." She shows up in Los Angeles, figures out how to get in at the ground floor, and begins to work her way up in the porn industry. But she's obsessed with becoming famous, and the film's focus is not so much on her desires and why she is the way she is, as much as it is on her experiences. Her lust for fame and glory is important because it ultimately causes her to lose her good sense and become everything she hates. But the film also tries to show us, in explicit detail, how the sex industry is abusive and harmful and entirely fucked up, too. I say "too" because many industries are like this, but they try to shy away from the fact that sex is the ultimate power. In the porn business that's obvious, it's literally all about sex, but there is just as much corruption and greed and control and abuse. And this is only just the scratching the surface of these kind of problems.
The original version of the film shown at Sundance 2021 is extremely explicit - multiple fully erect penises, graphic nudity galore, intense sexual intercourse and abuse and harassment. But all that is a regular part of the porn industry (they sell these videos) so it's not that shocking. What IS shocking is everything else about it and how this makes every viewer feel about the rest of the story. I believe the gratuitousness of the film very boldly and brilliantly forces us to consider the actual real-world references, enhancing how fucked up and how vivid it all is. It's not just about sex, it's about power of all kinds, so many people get sucked into fame and glory, losing their soul in the process. And the most brilliant part is that to tell this story of lust and obsession, to show us what's really going on, Thyberg uses literally the most explicit industry that exists to make sure it leaves us with our eyes open wider (yes, a Kubrick reference) than ever before. There is a point to the explicitness of it and it's not something that can or should be dismissed as too much for cinema.
Thyberg's Pleasure is some of the most ambitious and courageous bleeding-edge filmmaking this year, this is what truly bold filmmaking looks like. As easy as it might seem to someone watching, it is definitely not easy to make a film that takes place on porn sets, involving graphic nudity and sex and abuse, and film these scenes from an objective angle. And tell an interesting, nuanced story on top of all of that. It's also extremely brave to put in abusive men, erect penises, and sexual violence in a film and make sure that the film is still meaningful above and beyond the sex. This is part of what makes the filmmaking so ambitious. It's not even about the male or female gaze, or sexual perversion, it subtly digs into a great deal more. There are aspects of Pleasure that question the soulless obsession with fame. And there's aspects of it that show us how hard it is to maintain your passion, and what you must give up to move up in your career. It's uncomfortable to think that these issues apply to every industry and every career, but they do. And that's upsetting to realize.
What is particularly impressive - despite the explicit nudity and abuse and sex, the film acts as a metaphor for so many different stories and experiences in this world. This is not only happening in the porn industry but in every other industry (and in politics), too. The higher Bella gets in the porn industry, the less control and freedom she has. As she moves up, she loses it all. How ironic. And yet that lust for fame and glory frees her from all of her integrity and guilt. She can thrive without it, which is the cautionary tale side of it. This can be a metaphor for so many different non-explicit jobs and personalities and paths in life. It's a reminder that we can progressively shed our ideals and become evil simply by desiring fame. That is the core of the story, and sure it's set in the porn industry, but it applies to everything else. Hold onto your integrity, don't give up and give in, don't lose yourself in exchange for popularity. Learn from the mistakes Bella is making.