Are you here for business, or pleasure?
The façade of liberation, a placating lie spread to the masses in order to sell the idea that a twisted form of freedom can come from entrenching yourself within an inherently predatory system, one endlessly hellbent on overbearing claustrophobia. It is false by design, indicative of wider systemic issues that claim we can methodically (with insistence and perseverance) fix intrinsically broken institutions, rather than tear them down and rebuild them from the ground up. To claim that an industry built upon exploitation and shady practices can turn swiftly into an inverse space of safety and kindness is disingenuous at best, abhorrently wrong at worst, as there is too much precedent that consistently overshadows these attempts for reform.
And so, along with protagonist Bella Cherry, we enter into a broken system, through the modern masquerade of encouragement, due diligence, and glossy cleanliness, the gateway to a world of much darker underpinnings lying in wait to strip her of her humanity. Bella has moved from Sweden to Los Angeles, bright eyed and confident, ready to enter into the world of porn and become its next big star. Like most 19-year-olds, she is disillusioned and bored, weary of her hometown and the people within it. She has bought into the salacious allure of Hollywood glamour, flooded with visions of grandeur and fame, ready to become the next perennial symbol of sex. Despite it all, the walls are thin, weak plaster built on an unstable foundation, and the cracks split the paint, slowly growing more and more visible until it all crumbles down.
Ninja Thyberg’s vision is uncompromising and unflinching, and makes abundantly clear from its earliest moments that this is transgressive and challenging content that will never shy away from its intent. This powerful vision is the film’s greatest accomplishment, its refusal to back down. Pleasure shuffled between distributors until Neon picked it up with the stipulation they would not edit any of the content, a strong statement for the effectiveness and purpose of transgressive cinema like this. As its studio logos and opening credits display atop audio of orgasmic moans before showing full frontal nudity, within the first three minutes of the film, your expectations are well set for the rest of the film to come, but it also makes explicitly clear that despite being a film about sex, centered around an industry whose job it is to make everything look as appealing and attractive as possible, this is not a sexy film.
Centrally, the film is about the business of pleasure. Yet, the more time that passes, as we follow Bella’s journey through the valley (attempting to find her big break into the industry), the more it becomes clear that pleasure is often the last thing on anyone’s mind. Methodically, the lines that separate the seemingly well-meaning modern veneer and the lasting image of grimy, predatory practices that question the limits of consent begin to blur as the underwritten misogyny and exploitation of it all begins to shine through. The more Bella tries to find a way to exist in this world, with as much good faith and ethicality as possible, the more she finds that it is all slowly being torn from her, slowly breaking down her warm outer shell to reveal the darkest aspects of our psyches, digging deep to push her into conforming to the Machiavellian machinations of the industry. She stares towards the intoxicating velvet ropes of the VIP section, positioning herself to step on the necks of others without regard for their emotional state in order to reach the top of the fabled mountain of neon-drenched pool party glamour.
Ninja Thyberg’s vision, despite showing the seedy and disturbing effects of a fundamentally flawed and corrupt industry on the young and naïve performers it demands, is insistent on its empathy for the women it depicts. The uncomfortable latent aggression and pressure that is placed upon these women takes away all that once made them human, turning them from warm and friendly to ruthless and deceitful, but there is no blame placed on them. It is ultimately the fault of an industry that pushes for and rewards this behavior, and no number of good faith and well intentioned practices existing in the periphery can repair these flawed foundations. While Pleasure may stumble at times, often foregoing effective depictions of individual characters at the hands of its wider vision, its lasting impression is cogent and powerful, a plea for empathy as much as it is a demand to topple a broken system. “Do you think that’s something you can do?” An innocuous line that echoes beyond the final frames of the film, defining its lingering thesis. Submit to it all, and become the ruthless, soulless participant atop a tower of exploitation, or stop the cab and get out.