Sofia Kappel in “Pleasure”
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The most shocking moment in “Pleasure,” a film that doesn’t stint on discomfiting scenes in its depiction of the adult entertainment industry, comes at the beginning. 

In a preamble, director Ninja Thyberg and actress Sofia Kappel face the camera–and, by implication, the audience–to discuss the making of the movie. 

Ms. Thyberg speaks of the process she underwent in casting the lead actress, and commends Ms. Kappel for her performance. Ms. Kappel talks about the working environment overseen by Ms. Thyberg, testifying to a set that had safety uppermost on its mind. Then the movie begins.

There’s a quip making the rounds that any film made before the last six months should automatically be slapped with a trigger warning. Such is the evolutionary speed of contemporary mores. “Gone With the Wind” has famously been tagged with a disclaimer about its presumed endorsement of values that (pace HBO Max) “were wrong then and are wrong today.” 

“Pleasure” isn’t as out-of-date as all that, but it is a bit behind the curve. Filming began in 2018, and the picture’s trip to the box office has been bumpy, not least because of its explicit sexual content. Still, a lot can happen in four years. The much ballyhooed rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of Only Fans being one, as well as a world in which the puritanical diktats of wokery continue apace.

Whether Ms. Thyberg and Ms. Kappel felt compelled to defend “Pleasure” because of nervous theater owners or the wiles of the zeitgeist is moot; either way, they were strong-armed. What does it say about a culture in which artists are perpetually looking over their backs?

Given the travails encountered in “Pleasure,” perhaps a little puritanism is in order. The film is tough-going, clinical in its objectivity and often excruciating to watch. Ms. Thyberg brings us a fiction, but does so with the eye of a documentarian. She strives for verisimilitude–or, depending on how you look at these things, muddies the waters–by casting actual porn stars in supporting roles. 

Among them are Revika Anne Reustle and Chris Cock. Ms. Reustle plays Joy, a veteran of the Los Angeles porn scene who befriends Linnéa (Ms. Kappel), a recent emigre from Sweden who now performs under the nom-de-plume Bella Cherry.

Mr. Cock is Bear, a man who works both behind and in front of the camera. Joy and Bear are among the few sympathetic figures in “Pleasure.” It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the vulnerability the actors bring to this picture is predicated on their own been-around-the-block experiences.

Ms. Thyberg, who wrote and directed this, her first feature, should, of course, be given credit. But it is worth noting that other porn world notables–I’m thinking here, especially, of super-agent Mark Spiegler–come off as crass operators, opportunists given to welcoming facades and deep-seated hypocrisy. They’re a curious bunch, this cadre of impresarios.

Our lead is no less curious. Bella is intent on becoming the next big porn star, but why is never made clear. She has no “daddy issues”–the subject of a chummy conversation with Bear–though her relationship with mom may be problematic. After a strenuous bout of filming, Bella calls home seeking solace, and is summarily rebuffed. Then again, mom is oblivious to the true nature of Bella’s “internship.” 

The primary liability of the film is Bella. She’s not a fully-developed character so much as a gauge of the industry’s calculations and callousness. Admittedly, Ms. Kappel, in her film debut, is impressive. She invests her part with deeper currents of feeling than the script necessarily allows for, evincing a moral compass even as Bella capitulates to the stresses and duties peculiar to her career. 

“Pleasure” treads an unflinching, and ultimately ambiguous, pathway between exploitation and exposé. It is, to put it mildly, not a film for all tastes.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

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