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Pleasure review – authentic porn drama could have used more chaos

Sofia Kappel shines in director Ninja Thyberg's non-judgemental but overwritten look at the adult entertainment industry

Is it ever a good idea to see how the sausage is made? Pleasure deals liberally in the pleasures of the flesh, telling the story of how the initially naïve 20-something Bella (Sofia Kappel) arrives in LA with the express aim of reaching the top of the adult entertainment industry. As far as “A Star is Porn” films go, Pleasure is infinitely more cognisant and hard-edged than the sensationalism of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, but equally it lacks that film’s cinematic energy and disorder. Key to the film is the air of authenticity and the non-judgemental attitude it has towards its protagonists.

Outside of Kappel, every actor here is involved in porn, and director Ninja Thyberg spent years researching the industry, with collaborative help from many performers. As so it is: this is a film which views sex work as just work, with all the attendant boredom and routine that implies. It is deeply unsexy and plastic-y, in a way that’s reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s much-maligned masterpiece Showgirls. That film also frankly depicted the ways in which skin and body are made into mere assets to place a value on.

Kappel is great, particularly when it comes to how she uses her eyes: naïve and doe-eyed at first, but growing glassier and more hollow as the film goes on. The supporting cast are great, too, with plenty to suggest they could pick up work in “serious” acting if they so chose, particularly Zelda Morrison as Joy, who initially shows Bella the ropes but is soon left in the slipstream of her meteoric rise.

Pleasure focuses in on the fact that sex work itself is not the problem – the problem lies in the systems of work that can prop up ingrained abusive practices, perhaps exacerbated by the inherently intimate and gendered nature of pornography. Indeed, in two early scenes depicting the filming of aggressive and submissive sex, Thyberg takes pains to characterise the differences in work practices. The first, directed by a woman and with a gender-equal crew, builds a support system to ensure every step is comfortable for the performers. The second takes places in a small house, with Bella surrounded by three large males – and even as they attempt to calm her nerves, they remain coercive, with little thought to her wellbeing.

It is in this line, between the value of work as something which gives you dignity and self-sufficiency, and abusive practices that take that away, in which the film is at its strongest. But I wonder if there is a lack of trust in the audience at times – the script feels overwritten in that every step is clearly labelled, and each decision has been very carefully taken by the creative team. It’s a visible problem for many first-time directors emerging from Europe right now, in that it feels as though every frame is hyper-controlled. For all its finer qualities, Pleasure could have certainly done with a bit of chaos here and there.

Pleasure is released in UK cinemas on 15 June for one day only and then on MUBI on 17 June.

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