‘Pleasure’ review: Interrogating the male gaze through a porn lens

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The final shot of “Pleasure,” Ninja Thyberg’s bold and provocative feature about Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a young adult film actress navigating the porn industry, sees her in a limousine, having attained the fame she craved with none of the happiness. Her calculating journey has wound through toxic sets and even darker decisions, and you can see the strain on her face. Consumed by regret, she suddenly asks the driver to stop and leaves the car, departing from a story so accurate and acute regarding the moral sacrifices demanded for stardom it nearly paralyzes the viewer into submission.

Bella arrives in Los Angeles from Sweden, clad in a green, black-and-gold-colored fur coat — ready to show, in her words, why “she’s not like those other girls.” It’s a cool, confident mien that belies her relative inexperience. For example, on her first set, when handed a douche, she looks at the bottle like it’s dynamite dipped in gasoline. But Bella desperately wants bigger roles, bigger views for her videos and a higher social following; it’s that desire that not only causes her to dissolve her personal boundaries, it serves as the dramatic crux of Thyberg’s keen film.

Operating through Bella’s point of view, “Pleasure” initially maneuvers through distanced observations. Bella moves into a model house, forming a close bond with Joy (Zelda Morrison), a fellow actress fresh from Florida, and similarly looking for gigs and representation. Joy, however, carries far more experience than Bella. When the pair meet with agents, for instance, Joy is comfortable with every category of adult entertainment, whereas Bella wants strictly conventional set-ups: Boy-girl, girl-girl. It would, of course, be inaccurate to call Bella prudish. Bella just knows her limits. And all the men around her are fine with that … to a point.

The questions surrounding gaze — who controls and how that control alters the viewer or the actor’s perception — consume “Pleasure,” a film distinctly about control. Two revealing scenes buttress Thyberg’s observations. One takes place while Bella films a bondage scene. The only guy on set is a goofy, tatted actor fascinated by a shark video game. Everyone else in the crew, including the director, is a woman. The women fully dedicate themselves to Bella’s safety; even when she’s suspended in the air by ropes, there is never any real sense of danger. Bella comes away invigorated, with a fuller purpose from a shoot that espouses the sex positivity in porn.

In the other scene, Thyberg juxtaposes Bella’s auspicious bondage experience against her later filming a rough sex scene with a male director. In it, the line between performance and reality blur toward disturbing ends as fragmented images from Bella’s point of view, deployed like shrapnel by editors Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, capture the two male performers giddily laughing as they viciously attack her.

It’s telling how often the men surrounding Bella present themselves as good, understanding and supportive guys, when in reality they’re not. They tell her “no pressure,” yet cajole her to continue filming, drifting from manipulation masquerading as concern to rape. In an industry dominated by men, Bella has few avenues for help. The exception being Joy. But even that relationship frays when Bella reaches toward becoming a “Spiegler girl” — for one of the top adult entertainment agencies — and crosses her own moral boundaries. In her calculating pursuits for fame, pitfalls accompany her every decision.

Thyberg’s extensive research proves to be a godsend. The director spent years embedding herself in a model house and visiting sets. Many of the supporting players here, such as Mark Spiegler, are either real managers for adult film stars or actual porn stars, including Evelyn Claire as Ava Rhoades, a Spiegler girl Bella wants to model her career after.

But it’s Kappel, an actress with neither experience in the porn industry nor film, who turns in a star-making performance as Bella. She balances showing not just the insecurity and fear felt by this actress, but the joy too. Because Bella does love the pure theatrics of porn. She adores the freedom sex can bring. And she’s drawn toward the ways she can build her own reality behind a camera, whether it’s captured by a director or in a selfie. Kappel certainly knows what the camera desires. A palpable heat breathes from her eyes, as does an overwhelming intelligence for how to play to the inherent power of the lens.

While Thysberg does well to withhold judgment, approaching the porn industry not as an evil, “Pleasure” can sometimes play too clinically. That coldness is a hazard of casting nondramatic actors. Still, the quality of the script and the coy use of the choral score, swooning in for big emotions in intimate settings, such as a night-time walk on the beach, overcome such shortcomings. As does the foley sound (the audio attached to a particularly vivid scene will live rent free in your head).

Despite the movie’s name, “Pleasure” is rarely concerned with the viewer’s gratification. By the final ambiguous scene, a culmination of Bella’s hard-fought aspirations, all of the terrors she’s witnessed have nearly desensitized her. And as the camera pulls back, revealing a second female passenger, we see, as she does, her future in the other woman: A star numb to broken ethical lines. It’s what makes “Pleasure” a stirring debut by both Thyberg and Kappel and a daring picture that makes you love it, not for tawdry reasons but for all of the truthful crimes, perils and delights it covers.

‘Pleasure’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: Starts May 13, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles

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Originally published at www.latimes.com

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