Ninja Thyberg’s film Pleasure has been lauded as the “most honest” depiction of the adult industry on film yet, a “raw and real” journey into how porn actually works. That’s bold—but where it is absolutely true is in the details.
As a porn writer and producer, I’ve never seen a non-porn film capture the subtlety of the genre’s aesthetics so well. In Pleasure—the story of Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), a 20-year-old from Sweden who dives into the industry—the lighting is a perfect electric wash. The Amazon Prime lingerie is on point. In one scene, I could have sworn I walked on the exact hotel lobby carpet that Bella Cherry glides across. I even recognized some of the sets from actual porn. These details are the finer ways Pleasure’s inclusion of actual people in the adult industry paid off. Making your way into porn can be impossible unless you have an “in”—a friend, a confidant, a business partner, or even a relative. For Thyberg, that was a stacked cast of people who had been under the hot and sweaty lights for years.
When I finally caught up with the film recently, I saw the power of that in a mainstream movie for myself. But in some ways, the presence of these stars made Pleasure’s biggest problem all the more glaring.
One person involved was Casey Calvert, a porn actress who plays herself in the film and confirmed that much of the movie was filmed on the same properties I’ve watched many a “stepdaughter” seductively yet pointedly declare that she was in fact 18 years old. When I spoke to her about the movie on the question of “accuracy,” she was circumspect. “In Ninja’s intention of trying to make a portrayal both good and bad, I did think she was successful in that,” Calvert told me. But, she added, “when people watch Pleasure, they take from it what they want. If they want to take a negative view of the adult industry from Pleasure, they can absolutely do that, and if they want to take a positive view, they can absolutely do that. It’s very much up to personal perception.”
For those in the industry, or the rare few coming to this movie with a well-rounded perception of sex work, the film can be an interesting and at times satisfying depiction of the job. I enjoyed Bella Cherry’s first-act enthusiasm for pornography as an industry. She talks about being a porn actress the way bright-eyed enthusiasts speak about any other career dream. This rang true. While some young people join porn hoping to make a quick buck and leave, being an actor in this industry is a difficult job for many boring reasons that rarely get the Hollywood treatment: self-promotion, finding work without an agent, getting an agent, scheduling, doing taxes as a freelancer, getting waxed regularly, and so on. Ultimately, it’s a lot of commitment if you don’t genuinely love fucking on camera. I appreciate a character—and a narrative—that reflects that.
The issue is that even a genuinely “neutral” portrayal of an industry so heavily demonized in the mainstream will ultimately just reflect those same dominant stigmas, as reflected in the reviews both from critics and from the public. Pleasure is described in media as highlighting “the most dire and disgusting aspects of the porn industry”; the movie is about “driving home the point that porn is a pretty awful industry to try to succeed in.” As I watched the film, I wondered: If a piece of art does nothing but reinforce people’s already held beliefs about a subject, is it doing anything at all? Many industry people don’t seem to think so, with porn producer Axel Braun, who was involved, writing that “we got a shock-value cautionary tale showcasing in great detail the negative side of our industry and zero of the positive” in a since-deleted tweet. Performer Lucy Hart also tweeted that the central plot was “a cheap shot that made us look bad,” and later told Indiewire that the film’s ultimate takeaway “was not very sex-positive.” She pointed out that none of the adult industry performers had been highlighted in the promotional materials leading up to Pleasure’s release.
As someone who has watched almost as much media about pornography as I have watched porn itself (and I’ve watched a lot of porn), Pleasure lost its luster for me the moment it slipped into an exiting-the-industry arc. Jokes about overused plotlines in porn are starting to feel hypocritical, given that every single piece of media I have seen about the adult industry produced by those outside of it results in the same plot over and over again: the sex worker quitting his or her job, a decision clearly intended to elicit relief from the audience. Have mainstream Hollywood producers ever watched porn? Where are all the MILFs coming from if everyone leaves the industry at 24? “All of my peers, all of my colleagues, everyone has their own individual story of getting into this business,” Calvert told me. ”I don’t think you can take one story and extrapolate it outside of one person’s experience.” I asked her if she thinks stories about the porn industry like Pleasure are homogenized. “In mainstream media? Yes,” she said.
All the actors in Pleasure are from the porn industry itself with the notable exception of Sofia Kappel, who plays the main character. This casting holdout feels representative of Thyberg’s ultimate failing in a movie that’s meant to follow the true contours of this industry: an inability to fully commit. Despite years of research and the clear desire to break ground and do something new, Thyberg lost her edge halfway through and tripped into the same trauma porn (no pun intended) narrative I’ve seen hundreds of times before. Attention to detail and stellar performances from adult industry folks can only take a piece so far, and ultimately the film lingered in my mind as just another retelling of a worn-out story. If the porn industry can let go of plumbers and pizza delivery boys, so too—I hope—can Hollywood let go of its obsession with every sex worker “escaping” the industry.