This is the first piece in the Sundance Film Festival 2021 series by Julie Fukunaga and Olivia Popp. Follow along for coverage of films from Sundance’s reimagined virtual festival.
Editor’s Note: This story contains discussions of sexual harassment and gender-based violence within the porn industry that may be troubling to some readers.
The films that rise to the top of Sundance 2021 center young adulthood and sexuality in all its complexities, with films like Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure” (2021) leading the way in terms of gutsy, graphic coming-of-age narratives. Set to the backdrop of Los Angeles, “Pleasure” presents a teenaged and bright-eyed Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who has ambitions to make it big in the adult entertainment industry. Recently acquired by A24, “Pleasure” is set for an uncensored release sometime later this year, as well as a new R-rated version.
Far from immune to harassment, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, porn is a particularly nefarious extension of the entertainment industry — especially in the era of #MeToo, a movement calling for justice for survivors of sexual violence and harassment. The porn industry, as portrayed by Thyberg, perpetuates rape culture and misogyny, just as any profession might. However, the stigma against sex work often stifles any platform for larger discussion (and therefore scrutiny of instances of violence and discrimination). Sex workers’ accounts of harassment are held to an especially high double standard, further muddled by sexual violence against and the objectification of gender-marginalized bodies.
“Pleasure” offers a counterpoint, challenging the dominant narrative of discounting the sexually empowered woman who “asked for it” (amplified along axes of racism, queerness and trans-misogyny), instead calling for accountability and change across the entertainment industry, including but certainly not limited to sex work. Conversations about consent, coercion, power and patriarchy in porn are prominent throughout the entirety of the film, interspersed between day-to-day interactions, parties and shoots. Rather than shy away from the complexities of the adult film industry, “Pleasure” examines the good, the bad and the ugly: acknowledging the hypocrisy of porn production and consumption without reducing the sex worker to a powerless victim.
An anthropologist by trade, Thyberg offers us an insider vantage point in partnership with expert consultants in the adult film industry. The film itself, a fictionalized portrayal of the porn industry adapted from an earlier short she created over the course of her tenure in film school, is overly ambitious in some regards. It glosses over some issues too quickly, like the problematics of Black and interracial fetishization and the way Bella Cherry, a white woman, launches her career off of these racial hierarchies. In other scenes, Bella replicates the same patriarchy she is oppressed by, harming her female co-workers and friends by refusing to speak up as a witness to harassment (or, in a role-reversal involving a strap-on and schadenfreude, enjoying the power trip of dominating another). In response to the social commentary of her work, Thyberg cites the tremendous influence of the “inner circle” of the adult film industry and how it has shifted the focus of her film from capturing the “them” of the porn world (sex workers, producers, filmmakers, etc.) to issuing a critique on how societal expectations, no matter how dark and twisted, drive porn — for better or worse.
A central point of contention within the film is the line between consent and manipulation, particularly in situations where actors ask for permission to stop but are urged to continue by others in positions of power. At one point, Bella says that a particularly rough scene is “rape,” and is told by those behind the camera, including her pimp, not to throw around the word so loosely. “You asked for the scene. You can leave whenever,” they shrug, as though her reputation as an actress, as well as her payment, does not hinge on completing the scene. Negotiating the balance between audience expectation and the societally-defined, capitalist definitions of “success” is an ongoing exercise for Bella and other actresses throughout the film — an exercise that spans the full spectrum of empowering to dehumanizing.
Perhaps the most striking part of the film is lead actress Kappel’s performance. With no previous background in professional acting (let alone the adult film industry), Kappel is incredibly emotive, from the snarky, humorous side quips she shares with friends to the authenticity she brings to the most vulnerable of her scenes. While the film could easily fall into the trope of the naive girl who has her dreams shattered only to triumph against all odds by some stroke of luck, its characterization of Bella Cherry is far from one-dimensional. We witness her regrets, her inner conflicts and her reckoning with what it means to “make it” as a professional — which can be Machiavellian at times. Kappel’s performance truly makes Bella Cherry as a character: a boss ass bitch whose come-up in a flawed industry is not without tears, betrayal and hard work. “Pleasure” is absolutely a jumping-off point for the talented young actress to make big waves, and I cannot wait to keep up with her in the future.
The film takes us through the complexity of a regular day at work for Bella Cherry. Filming “rough scenes” on a good day can be wholly safe, affirming experiences that can just as quickly become nauseating ones the next. Trust between actors and management is core to porn but extremely difficult to find throughout the film, which frequently strands women in the extremely vulnerable, white male-dominated spaces in front of and behind the camera. The film is meticulous in every aspect, from its casting to the safety precautions present in its graphic sex scenes. Everyone on set, including Kappel, who was accompanied by her best friend on set at all times, was allowed to say cut “if they felt that things were going too far,” according to the film’s press notes.
At times, “Pleasure” is brutal to watch, from the unabashed “rough” scenes filled with their fair share of verbal, physical and sexual degradation to the physical and psychological limits actors push to maintain their reputations as professionals. The film bounces fairly abruptly between scenes of comfort and kindness and scenes with some of the most heinous examples of harassment, gaslighting and manipulation I’ve seen on screen. In this sense, the film requires a tough stomach (that not all, including myself during a second rewatch, could muster) and a certain amount of patience in order to move beyond its traumatic provocations into the informative viewing experience “Pleasure” can be.