Review by Sean Boelman
The road that Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure has taken to the big screen is troubled, to say the least. After making a big splash at Sundance in 2021 and quickly getting snatched up for distribution by A24, it dropped off the radar until it was announced last fall that NEON would be taking over due to concerns over releasing the film unedited. Audiences are finally getting the opportunity to see the movie (uncut), and it doesn’t always deliver on its promise.
The film follows a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming the next adult film star only to be met with the harsh reality of the porn industry. It isn’t the first movie about the world of pornography, but one would be hard-pressed to find one as frank as this, even if it does have its fair share of issues.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it offers a very narrow view of the sex work industry. Yes, the movie is very effective in its exploration of the particular problems it hopes to address, but it largely ignores the elephant in the room that is human trafficking. Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij do their best to create a blunt but sex-positive portrait of this industry, but fail to peel back the curtain as insightfully as they claim to.
The film is undeniably relentless in its pacing and depiction of graphic sexuality. And while the movie isn’t as clinical as something like say, David Cronenberg’s Crash, it still is not even close to being meant to arouse. The explicit nature of the film is sure to be divisive — as some will undoubtedly argue that it is exploitative of trauma, and to an extent, it is. However, this feels entirely necessary to bring home its point.
Unlike a lot of other movies set in the porn industry, this one does not feel heavily stylized. It has a gritty, almost documentary-like approach in a way that makes us as the viewer feel like we are a fly on the wall. It’s an enormously uncomfortable way to watch these events, but that is exactly what Thyberg seems to be going for.
The protagonist of the film is a tragic hero the likes of which many movies attempt but few pull off. Thyberg and Modestij do an excellent job of making the audience understand and sympathize with the character even when she makes the most frustrating of decisions. No small part of this is thanks to lead actress Sofia Kappel, who gives a phenomenally nuanced performance that will go down as one of the best breakouts of the year.
On the other hand, the supporting cast of the film feels entirely underdeveloped. Everyone, from her co-stars to the agents all feel like caricatures. The movie does feature a lot of pornographic actors who play exaggerated versions of themselves, but everything feels like it is being manipulated to fit the narrative of the protagonist.
Pleasure is a film that should be admired for the audacity it has to tackle such a topic so openly, but it sometimes misses the mark in what it explores. Although it does some things very well, much of the movie feels more like a first step than the full conversation.
Pleasure hits theaters on May 13.