Skip to main content

Pleasure review: An explicit and unflinching drama

Much like the ambitious protagonist at the center of its story, Pleasure isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. The new film from Swedish writer-director Ninja Thyberg is a deep dive into the world of the American porn industry that’s told through the eyes of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a Swedish girl who moves to Los Angeles with plans to become the next big porn star.

Bella doesn’t waste any time beginning that pursuit, and neither does Pleasure. After opening with a brief but explicit audio clip from an over-the-top sex scene, Pleasure follows Kappel’s Bella as she arrives in the U.S. fresh off her flight from Sweden. The film’s first images show Bella filling out paperwork and providing her fingerprints before being asked by an unseen customs agent if she’s come to the United States for business or pleasure. After pausing for a brief moment, Bella replies, “Pleasure.”

It’s an instance of meta-humor that kicks Pleasure off on a tongue-in-cheek note, but it’s not the moment in the film’s prologue that is the most indicative of what’s to come in Thyberg’s feature directorial debut. Instead, it’s the moments when Bella has to sign paperwork and mark her fingers with ink that feel the most in line with Thyberg’s intentions in Pleasure, a film that’s less about eliciting its titular feeling and more about exposing the mechanics of an industry that produces content designed to titillate and excite.

Business or pleasure?

Bella Cherry sits in front of a camera in Pleasure.
NEON, 2022

Despite the promise of the film’s title, Thyberg is not interested in creating the same feelings in Pleasure that its characters are. She makes that clear early on when Bella shows up at a vacated LA home to shoot her very first porn scene. Throughout the sequence, Thyberg systematically lays bare (no pun intended) all the awkward truths and tricks that are lingering beneath the surface of every porn scene.

The film, which is unrated in the United States, features numerous explicit images and sequences. That’s not surprising given the film’s subject matter, but it’s a testament to Thyberg’s control as a director that it never feels like she’s taking Pleasure‘s moments of nudity or sex too far. That achievement is partly the result of the film’s bright and glossy aesthetic, which imbues Pleasure with a sterility that stops it from ever feeling even remotely sensual. The film’s look just reinforces Thyberg’s desire to explore the business side of the porn industry rather than the sexual side of it.

Her exploration results in Thyberg revealing many insider details that most people likely don’t know about the porn industry, as well as the rampant misogyny that runs throughout it, which can make female performers’ lives unfairly difficult. That aspect of the industry is deftly expressed by Thyberg in one of the film’s best stretches, which begins when Kappel’s Bella participates in a BDSM scene that’s directed by a woman (Aiden Starr).

Climbing the ladder

Bella peers through a door in Pleasure.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The experience turns out to be a positive one for the budding porn star. The scene’s rules are established early on and its crew goes out of its way to make sure Bella is comfortable with everything that happens throughout it. Energized by the experience, Bella tells her manager (Jason Toler) to find her a scene of a similar nature. The scene she gets is directed by a man and stars two other male performers, all of whom pay little care to her emotions throughout the shoot. The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and the experience nearly convinces Bella to leave both LA and her burgeoning porn career behind.

She doesn’t end up doing that. Instead, Bella decides to take matters into her own hands and pursues a manager (Mark Spiegler) who has the power to make her the star she believes she deserves to be. That decision marks a turning point for Pleasure, with the film gradually becoming less invested in examining the porn industry at large and more interested in exploring how Bella’s ambitious nature leads her to abandon many of her own rules in the hopes of getting what she wants.

It’s during this section that Kappel’s skills as a performer are most apparent. Pleasure marks Kappel’s feature film acting debut, but it doesn’t take long for the wide-eyed nature of her performance to fade away. The same goes for Bella’s naïveté, which is eventually replaced by her all-consuming desire to succeed. As the character, Kappel does a good job of bringing Bella’s calculating, cold side to life, especially in Pleasure’s final act.

A (porn)star is born

Bella embraces a man in Pleasure.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Thyberg’s decision in Pleasure’s back half to turn it into a morality play about the cost of reckless ambition is also what makes the film’s final stretch its weakest. Bella’s overall arc ends up feeling disappointingly familiar, which makes the entire film feel more generic than it should. That’s partly due to the fact that her journey is one we’ve already seen a thousand times before, but it’s more the result of Bella feeling less like a three-dimensional character than a vessel for Thyberg’s own interests.

That doesn’t mean Pleasure is an unsuccessful feature debut for Thyberg. On the contrary, the film is sharply edited from start to finish and its ability to skip between multiple different tones within a single scene is thanks to Thyberg’s own, bone-deep understanding of her material. Her examination of the porn industry is comprehensive and even-handed in a way that is undeniably impressive, and throughout the film, she reveals many of the industry’s biggest issues without ever casting judgment on (most of) the people who choose to participate in it.

Consequently, Pleasure’s title ends up feeling less like a promise and more like a statement about the myriad ways in which an industry that is designed to simulate pleasure so often fails to ensure it for many of its female stars.

Pleasure hits theaters on Friday, May 13.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
Operation Seawolf review: nice Nazis? No thanks!
Dolph Lundgren holds onto a pipe inside a U-Boat in a scene from Operation Seawolf.

At a time when anti-Semitic extremists are storming the U.S Capitol, running for office, and declaring war on Jewish people via social media, it might not be the best time for a movie that expects you to sympathize with Nazis. And yet, that hasn't stopped Operation Seawolf from sailing into theaters and on-demand streaming services this month.

The film, which follows the crew of a German U-boat during the waning days of World War II, casts Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) as German war hero Capt. Hans Kessler, who's ordered to lead the Nazis' remaining U-boats on a desperate (and likely fatal) mission to attack the U.S. on its own soil. As he and his crew make their way toward New York City in one final bid to turn the tide of war, Kessler finds himself struggling with both the internal politics of the ship and his own sense of duty as the Third Reich crumbles around him.

Read more
Conversations with A Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes review: killer’s words yield little insight
A superimposed image of Jeffrey Dahmer in Conversations with a Killer.

It’s spooky season this month, and that means the atrocity mine is currently being plundered by content creators across America. The three-episode docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes, directed by noted documentarian Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper, Paradise Lost), is Netflix’s second project tackling the infamous cannibal/necrophiliac/serial killer to debut in a matter of weeks. It follows Ryan Murphy’s 10-hour miniseries drama, Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. This Dahmer double dose mirrors the barrage of Ted Bundy content that Netflix put out in early 2019, following up the Zac Efron-led drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with the docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (also directed by Berlinger). 

As was the case with Bundy, Netflix is convinced that a multipronged examination of Dahmer could lead to a better understanding of his psychology and motivations, teaching viewers warning signs or expanding our capacity for empathy. Or maybe they recognize that people are addicted to unspeakable tragedies and will do anything they can to maximize viewers’ compulsion for true crime? Attempting to satisfy on all accounts, The Dahmer Tapes oscillates uneasily between character study, social commentary, and pure shock value, landing somewhere in between all three.
In Dahmer's own words

Read more
Amsterdam review: An exhausting, overlong conspiracy thriller
Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington walk through a lobby together in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam could have been forgiven for being a lot of things, but dull is not one of them. The new film from writer-director David O. Russell boasts one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year and is photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, one of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers. Beyond that, its kooky premise and even wackier cast of characters open the door for Amsterdam to be the kind of screwball murder mystery that O. Russell, at the very least, seems uniquely well-equipped to make.

Instead, Amsterdam is a disaster of the highest order. It’s a film made up of so many disparate, incongruent parts that it becomes clear very early on in its 134-minute runtime that no one involved — O. Russell most of all — really knew what it is they were making. It is a misfire of epic proportions, a comedic conspiracy thriller that is written like a haphazard screwball comedy but paced like a meandering detective drama. Every element seems to be at odds with another, resulting in a film that is rarely funny but consistently irritating.

Read more