When Ninja Thyberg, the screenwriter and director of the porn industry drama “Pleasure,” was a teenager, everything about pornography ticked her off.
“Women were these sex dolls used to satisfy men,” she told me, sitting beside her star, Sofia Kappel, in an apartment in Chinatown in Manhattan. In the early 2000s, in her native Sweden, Thyberg was even involved with an anti-porn activist group.
“But then I realized it also turned me on,” she said.
“Pleasure” is being released by Neon after Thyberg parted ways with A24 over disagreements about the original, uncensored cut — which is the one audiences can now see in theaters.
The film follows Bella Cherry (Kappel), a 19-year-old from Stockholm who travels to Los Angeles hoping to become the next sensation in porn. It is an immersive look at the industry — from its power dynamics to its performers’ routine upkeep — from the perspective of a fresh-faced starlet. It’s kind of like a mash-up of “Showgirls” and “A Star is Born,” if only those heroines were as hyper-aware as Bella of their own objectification.
“In Sweden, it’s embarrassing and degrading to embrace such backwards gender norms,” said Thyberg, who has undergone an awakening since her time as an activist. After learning about feminist porn, she made a 2013 short film that the feature-length “Pleasure” is based on. Then, she immersed herself in the Los Angeles porn scene, eventually meeting one of the industry’s premier agents, Mark Spiegler, who plays himself in a small role and who assisted Thyberg in connecting with several of the porn professionals who ultimately worked on the film.
“I wanted to look at porn from a perspective that doesn’t see women as victims. How do they profit and how might they feel empowered?” Thyberg said.
Ambitious but inexperienced, Bella heads to her first job, a straightforward girl-on-guy scene that initially sends her into a panic. But her nerves are assuaged by the easygoing male crew. Turns out she’s a natural, and when the scene cuts, she triumphantly takes a raunchy selfie to share with her social media following.
A first-time actress, Kappel traveled to Los Angeles six months before “Pleasure” began shooting to familiarize herself with the milieu and attend industry events as if she were Bella Cherry. Kappel, too, visited her first set on her second day in town. “At first, I was anxious I was going to see people who didn’t really want to be there. That was my prejudice speaking. I remember thinking, the moaning is so loud, it’s obviously a performance,” she said.
Bella, desperate to prove her chops, navigates increasingly kinky shoots: there’s a bondage scene in which she’s tied up in ropes, then slapped around by a tattooed dom, and a climactic group sex scene that nearly causes her to pass out. Suffice it to say, theatergoing audiences haven’t seen this much — and such varied kinds — of onscreen sex in quite a while.
But how to capture Bella performing for the male gaze without assuming it? And without shying away from being explicit or allowing her to look sexy?
“We literally turned the camera around,” Thyberg said, referring to how the sex scenes unfold from Bella’s point-of-view.
The film also refreshingly foregrounds the behind-the-scenes realities of porn sets: we see the unflattering adjusting of bodies into the right angles and positions; technicians running around like a stunt team; men turning to unorthodox methods to achieve an erection.
For Casey Calvert, a porn star-turned-director who was recruited to serve as a production consultant (and who also played a minor part), “Pleasure” is a remarkably authentic portrait of an industry that people have a lot of fraught assumptions about. It captures everything from the struggles of learning how to pose (“Every new girl in porn has the experience of standing on a white backdrop and not knowing what to do with her body,” she said) to the racist ideals that uphold interracial porn as the most boundary-pushing subgenre of them all.
Many of these sex scenes play out with surprising tenderness, with a complicated and nonprescriptive understanding of the knotty boundary between consent and exploitation. But the film also showcases some truly horrifying scenarios, as when Bella agrees to shoot a “rough” scene that involves her being violently choked and assaulted by two men until she abandons the set.
“It might sound crazy, but that was the scene I enjoyed the most,” Kappel said. “Like many women, I’ve experienced abuse, so it was hard for me to return to that place. But being able to relive those memories in a completely safe environment was cathartic. Very few people get to do that.”
Both Thyberg and Kappel praised the cast and crew’s efforts at ensuring Kappel’s peace of mind, with Thyberg noting how different it would have been had she not cast mostly porn actors, many of whom have experience with the camera and know tricks to make scenes look more believably real or brutal. “They’re pros who understand how uncomfortable these things are and how to deal with it, but with regular actors we would’ve had to take care of everyone.”
But Thyberg recognizes how useful it would have been to have an intimacy coordinator. “Pleasure” was shot in 2018, at a time when the entertainment industry was only starting to develop standard practices around sex scenes and only a small number of production companies began requiring an intimacy coordinator’s expertise.
“It was a big weight on me, needing to make sure Sofia felt comfortable while making her performance as strong as possible. I was split. I had to have other women in the room to help,” she said.
Fanni Metelius, one of Thyberg’s assistant directors, often stepped in to help Kappel mentally prepare. You could say she was an unofficial intimacy coordinator — in fact, Metelius now frequently works as an official one in Sweden — with one crucial difference: On “Pleasure,” she lent her support in the capacity of a friend and crew member, whereas now, she said, it’s her “responsibility and I can be held accountable.”
Thyberg explained that she didn’t see “Pleasure” as a film about the porn industry. “It’s an allegory about being a woman in a patriarchal, capitalist world,” she said. “Bad things happen, but it’s not because people are having sex on camera.”
By the end, Bella’s star ascends at the expense of her friendships and the genuine pleasure she once felt doing her job.
Thyberg has noticed that the industry has evolved since she first started exploring it.
“With social media and OnlyFans, it’s not just about male directors and white, straight desire and women constantly backstabbing each other,” she said, hints of which are glimpsed when Bella grows closer to her housemates, and they fantasize about starting a production company together.
“Abuses of power exist in all workplaces. Maybe camaraderie with other women is the way forward,” she added.
I remarked on Thyberg’s hand tattoo, which reads “Bella Cherry.” Kappel has the same one. “This is my only tattoo,” Thyberg added, trading smiles with her star, whose dozens of tattoos and piercings are visible in the film. “I thought it’d be a nice bonding moment.”