This Year’s Most Shocking Film Will Change The Way You See Porn Forever

Photo Courtesy of AB Svensk Filmindustri.
There have been many films about the workplace. About the misogyny, corruption, toxicity and abuse. About men and women, how the latter can fall prey to patriarchal power dynamics and all manner of despicable acts that occur behind the facade of employment. But very few pack an acrid punch like Pleasure, helmed by Swedish director Ninja Thyberg. This startling film about the porn industry initiates the audience with a zoomed-in opening sequence of a woman dry-shaving her vulva. It’s a word of warning from the outset: this is not going to be an easy ride. But why should it be? Life is rarely.
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Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) is an ambitious but naive 19-year-old who touches down in LA from Sweden with dreams of becoming the next big porn superstar. "Business or pleasure?" asks passport control, to which she responds, with a knowing smirk: "Pleasure." It’s a nod to how many would judge her line of work as easy or, indeed, strictly pleasurable, as opposed to the bleak reality that it is often awkward at best or – worst-case scenario, which we see in explicit detail later on – violent or dehumanising.
Prior to Bella's first shoot we see her register with her agent, who films her with his phone as she answers a slew of consent-based questions: confirming her date of birth and pre-agreed fee and giving her verbal understanding that she will be engaging in sexually explicit acts for her contract. So far, so hunky dory. She’s a first-timer and seems comforted by this level of surface professionalism. But this scene sets the tone for what Thyberg wants to hammer home: that grave acts of exploitation can happen under the veneer of consent and regulation, especially in such a male-dominated industry.
Bella moves into a chaotic agency house with fellow porn stars: an industry veteran and some friendly rookies, including scrappy Joy who immediately takes her under her wing. One day, on a promotional shoot, Bella’s eye is caught by a glamorous porn star who receives gushing preferential treatment. She's a Spiegler girl, part of a roster of aspirational porn stars who have been signed by one of the industry’s top agents, Mark Spiegler. They are among the most respected and high-earning but with zero boundaries dictating what they will or won’t be subject to. 
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Bella ruthlessly sets her sights on the top, starting with a BDSM shoot to show she has what it takes to be a Spiegler girl. Bondage and whips aside, it’s notably the only shoot Bella does with an all-woman team, during which her safety and comfort are of the utmost priority. The female director explains what will happen in every scene, asks for her safe word and offers her a robe between takes. Afterwards, Bella is asked whether she wants to shower or relax on the sofa. She is treated like a professional and, more importantly, a human being. 
Photo Courtesy of AB Svensk Filmindustri.
This is compared with a later scene – arguably the most harrowing of the film – where Bella agrees to record 'rougher material' with two men and a male director. The contrast is stark. In a claustrophobic room we see her slapped, choked, spat on, verbally abused. Thyberg lets our imagination do the rest – we assume the worst happens off-camera as we hear her wailing, crying and throwing up. There is no safe word or choreography to speak of, and the camera zooms in, forcing us to look at her traumatised face. At one point, it gets too much to bear and she asks them to stop. The actors immediately cut their performance, comforting her with sickly pet names such as 'honey' and 'baby', wiping away her tears. They pressure her, telling her that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to but that she’s wasted their time and money for studio space. After much of this manipulative and incessant cajoling from the men – which you can tell is on the brink of turning nasty – she eventually agrees to finish the scene, to the stomach-churning response from the director: "Doesn’t it feel good when you say yes?" Here, the fragile nature of consent is called into question, the scene a distressing testament to the fact that post-#MeToo, whatever 'better practice' or 'safekeeping' might exist for women, there will be men who find new ways to abuse it. 
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Importantly, Thyberg never allows us to condemn Bella for wanting to succeed; after all, in any other industry, her drive and tenacity would be perceived as career-making. Nor is she painted as a victim: she has agency, even though we see her grapple with her decisions. And there is certainly no condemnation of sex workers, of why and how they decide to pursue their line of work. The condemnation – and it is severe – is reserved for an industry (undeniably a blaring microcosm of Hollywood) seemingly built on the hatred of women, and for the men who take too much pleasure in enforcing its structure. 
Pleasure will be available on MUBI from 17th June.

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