‘Pleasure’ Challenges the Male Gaze Through the Shattered Dreams of an Aspiring Porn Star

Like countless other internationals, Bella (Sofia Kappel) has left her native Sweden to seek fame in Los Angeles. She isn’t attending one of the city’s prestigious, pricey film schools or looking for an internship in the major studios. Her aim is to become a porn star. Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure” thus begins as a cinematic provocation not to be ignored.  It’s a debut for both director and star where the adult film industry is profiled in its starkness, while still capturing the overall spirit of ambition that drives so many to do anything. “I’ve been interested in porn as a subject my whole adult life since my first boyfriend showed me a porn film,” Thyberg tells Entertainment Voice. “I later started questioning some of the black and white mentalities on the subject. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with porn or people having sex on camera. The problem is the stereotypical gender roles and the male gaze.”

On a superficial level, Bella at first looks like any other aspiring actor having to start at the bottom. She lives in a “model house” with other girls looking for success in porn (including real-life porn actor Aiden Starr). Her first gigs are scenes involving standard sex acts. In order to rise higher, Bella soon learns she needs to agree to do more. Her goal becomes to get signed with major porn agent Mark Spiegler (played by the real guy) who makes it clear he only signs girls willing to do extreme acts or violent sequences. It turns into a rather harrowing journey where Bella finds herself on sets where you’re expected to endure what is clearly abuse for the sake of “the scene.” She finds friendship in Bear (Chris Cock, another adult industry name), who looks weary from having worked in this environment for too long. As success nears, Bella also learns other costs that come with it, like having to step over friends and brush away lingering trauma.

“Pleasure” is an extreme example of the idea that cinema can place us in the shoes of someone else. Thyberg may be a provocateur on the order of Larry Clark, famous for his unflinching dives into lost youth in “Kids” and “Bully.” She also clearly has her own voice, which is observant yet critical at the same time. This is a piece of radical feminist cinema as well, forcing us to experience Bella’s journey through her eyes. “What I wanted to bring to it was an actual genuine and authentic character,” Kappel tells Entertainment Voice. “We tend to only see the stereotypes. We tend to believe those are the only types of people in the industry. It was important for Bella to be a character that the audience stays loyal to, and who is very human. That makes it harder for the audience to detach themselves. When it comes to the adult entertainment industry, we want to say ‘that’s them, this is us.’ So I wanted to bring layers and warmth to her. She’s not a perfect person, no one is. Everyone’s made good and bad choices. I know I have.”

Thyberg challenges our typical conceptions of film eroticism by creating the sensation that we are firmly in Bella’s vantage point while doing a shoot. We feel what a porn set is like, where men set the rules and essentially corner her into agreeing to what they want. Working environments are infamous for sexism, but the stakes are higher here because Bella’s chief commodity is her very body. At first, Thyberg likes to capture the almost comic practicality of a porn shoot. Angles are adjusted. An actor needs help lowering his pants. A lot of soothing language is used to calm Bella down and sex acts are directed with nonchalant commentary. Wipes and hand sanitizer are always nearby. “I’ve been to a lot of porn sets,” says Kappel. “I’m the only cast member in the movie not from the adult industry. What stood out to me was that it’s so technical. The end product is nothing like what it looks like while being filmed. You don’t see what goes on in the background, the breaks they take. There’s a scene where a male performer asks if he smells like onions. That was put in because on one of the sets I was on they had onion sandwiches for lunch. It was such a normal thing to do in what for me was a very un-normal situation.” 

“I tried to be as authentic as possible,” says Thyberg. “I did five years of research on the porn industry. Everything is based on something I witnessed. Everyone except for Sofia is from that world, although they don’t always play themselves. Some of the ‘bad’ guys are played by actually really nice guys.” As Bella goes farther into the industry, the image begins to get more and more unsavory. Any environment based on commodifying individuals is packed with ruthless narcissism. At the pool parties some people bask in the debauchery, others sit on couches looking marooned. In one truly unnerving moment, Bella is basically trapped into a violent shoot involving two men who hit and degrade her. When she complains to her agent, he shrugs and reminds her she wanted to do “hard scenes,” which are apparently essential to gaining prominence. “It’s important to emphasize that this is my view on the porn industry,” says Thyberg. “You could tell any type of story from different angles, and this was my choice on what I wanted to focus on. If it’s an allegory, it’s an allegory about being a woman in a male-dominated world. It’s almost about patriarchy and capitalism. The more I spent exploring that world I became more interested in the people and power structures.”

“We consume a lot of porn, about 80% of men I believe consume it, and yet we don’t talk about it,” says Kappel. “This also affects our general health if we’re not taught how to consume things. Most people won’t go out and shoot up a place after watching an action film, but they will replicate choking someone after watching it on a porn film.” This film challenges comfort zones like few others this year, while maintaining an empathetic, human tone. Bella is a young woman attempting to find prominence in an industry dominated by men whose purpose is to sell quick satisfaction. She has to turn herself into a product. The strain can be tough and she calls home one lonely night, wondering if she could come back. It’s a heartbreaking moment because her mother asks how “the internship” is going, meaning no one is aware of just what kind of career Bella came seeking to Los Angeles. “Pleasure” is not necessarily an attack on the practice of pornography, but a critique of its current nature. How far are we willing to go to sell ourselves and anything else? This is not a movie meant to turn you on, but to reflect in a visceral way on the backstage truth of any industry. “Most porn does not address consent. Most of it reflects the male gaze and it’s about pleasing the men,” says Kappel. “What happens in ‘Pleasure’ is that we use the camera to capture the female gaze. When we see this through the female gaze most of what is considered ‘erotic’ or ‘sexy’ disappears.” “Pleasure” releases May 13 in select theaters.