This review originally ran in 2021 as part of our Sundance coverage. We're re-upping it in honor of the film showing at Grand Illusion from May 27 to June 2.
How has cinema's perspective on the porn industry changed since the Gen X masterpiece Boogie Nights, which was completed in 1997 but set in the 1970s? According to Pleasure, a film written-directed by Ninja Thyberg, a Swede, and set in the capital of US porn, LA: a lot and not so much. Let's begin with the former.
In our day, a person with big porn dreams, such as those maintained by the main character of Pleasure, Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), must amass a large following on social media. That means posting dirty selfies on the regular. The movers and shakers of porn will not take you seriously unless you show them the number of likes and eyeballs on your profile. (Please forgive the smutty pun in that sentence, but as the Human League once sang: "I'm only human.") This is the first important lesson that Pleasure's star, Bella Cherry, who moves to Los Angeles from rural Sweden with nothing but what can only be described as Blond Ambition, learns when she attempts to make the fantastic leap from the massive bottom of the porn heap to its tiny top.
The next thing that's different is all of this language and expressions of feminist sensitivity that are used to encourage young woman to perform scenes that are often violent and degrading. One minute, two men are doing all they can to make a rape look real; the next minute, they are calming and caressing and expressing solidarity with a woman clearly traumatized by the "fiction" of a sex crime.
That said, here's where things are the same. The humor in Boogie Nights matches that in Pleasure. And the source of that humor is not hard to explain. It is the imposition of a factory system on a "biological attribute" that, under normal human circumstances, is intimate (or private). In Pleasure, men have to wank a lot to get it up. Or a man injects lord knows what into his penis to keep it up. Or, on the other end, a woman is accused of neglecting to clean her woo-hoo because, you know, it's revealing our origin in the ocean a bit too much.
I will conclude with a ghost that haunts Thyberg's film. And she knows this ghost well, because there is a scene in Pleasure (a POV montage of men brutally ramming Cherry) that obviously refers to this ghost, which is Swedish, Lukas Moodysson's 2002 Lilya 4-ever. Many might say Thyberg's Pleasure has little to no moralism it. But such an impression is wrong. Watch the film carefully. Thyberg, all the way to the very last scene, never achieves escape velocity from the gravity of the heavily (and rightly) moral Lilya 4-ever.
Pleasure runs from May 27 to Jun 2 at Grand Illusion Cinema.