Year of release: 2022
Director: Ninja Thyberg
Actors: Sofia Kappel, Evelyn Claire, Zelda Morrison, Chris Cock
Original Score: Karl Frid
Feature by: Tobias Fischer
[Read our Karl Frid interview]
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There is a tension between morale and instinct. Or, as Sheryl Crow used to sing, “if it makes you happy, it can't be that bad.” For director Ninja Thyberg, that push and pull between the societal implications of sex and the lust and satisfaxtion it awards are a creative force fueling her work. In Pleasure, she depicts the personal story of lead character Leane, who, as an 18 year old, leaves her native Sweden for LA to become the next big porn star. A slippery slope to ruin or an ambitious ascent towards the stars? In the hands of Thyberg, that distinction is proving hard to make.
Pleasure sets out to “portray the female side of things”. In a way, Leane's story is a take on the American dream: Give it all you have, fail, dust yourself off and try again; cut the bullshit, put the work in, and be prepared to go all the way to reach your goals. Why should the road from dishwasher to movie star be any different than that of a waitress to porn star?
Of course, one could argue that the porn industry mirrors and amplifies all the stereotypes, misalignments, prejudices, and power imbalances of society: The repression and abuse of women, the racial colourline (interracial sex, as the movie points out, is the most depraved kind of genre in the business, more obscene than bestiality or violence), the lip service to protecting those in need of help while, in fact, using them for profit. But in this, too, it may not be all that different in kind – although arguably in degree – from any other line of business.
This, then, is the premise of Pleasure: It plays with expectations about what is right and what is wrong, about what constitutes art and what is smut. And this despite the fact that, on paper, Hollywood and porn couldn't be more different.
The former is seduction and mesmerisation, an artful exploration to extend the impact of images into music, sound, and narrative. The latter is all surface – an effort to avoid artifice, a historyless, characterless, ultimately narrativeless celebration of images as primal pointers. Hollywood movies reach their peak when the wall between the screen and the spectator breaks down and you're drawn into the story completely. Porn, on the other hand, works best when what you see is all there is, when the layers of reality lift and condense into an anonymous string of sense impressions.
And yet, both are obviously inherently visual media and both deal with intensity. That is why, although Hollywood purports to condemn the morality of its dirty cousin, it is actually, in a deeply confusing way, in love with it: The rawness, the realness, the complete lack of artifice of porn were inspiring to a generation of artists – including Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 directors - who grew up on a high-calorie diet of glamourous, commercial imagery. Suddenly, you could no longer pretend that what you were seeing was “just a movie”, that actors were really just “pretending”, that when the camera stopped rolling and the lights went off, nothing had actually happened.
Pleasure takes a different approach, one that is as simple as it is genial and leaves the established techniques of the format intact.
Carefully composed, it is an almost classically filmed movie, with smart dialogue, carefully chosen camera angles, and, remarkably, lots of silences and breathing space. Shot, for the most part, in a style akin to the new French cinema style, it depicts the life outside of the bedroom, as a struggle with its typical ups and downs. The sex scenes, on the other hand, are filmed in ultrahigh definition and with glamourous, stylised beauty, supported by Karl Frid's fantastical soundtrack that congenially blends trap beats, with operatic vocal lines. Life is hard, but the ability of sex to transport us, remains. As Thyberg stated in an interview for The New York Times, for all of its turning-women-into-sex-dolls, porn can nonetheless “turn us on.”
At the very end, when Leane violates her closest competitor and currently biggest porn star with a strap-on in front of the camera,she even, for a short moment, achieves transcendence – entirely in tune with her approach, it is here that Thyberg shows us almost nothing but their faces, the movie reaching its emotional and narrative climax by showing us very little, if anything at all.
Like many great movies, the truth is in the seemingly contradictory feelings it leaves us with. Thyberg wanted to avoid a simple critique, and yet, especially in its somewhat forced ending, it does occasiobally ended up that way. She also wanted to come to terms with the fact that she can actually appreciate porn, but still ended up making a movie that's great precisely because it is so completely unlike a porno in every single way.
These things can be irritating, but they can be inspiring, too. In its best moments, Thyberg is giving you incredibly powerful images and a spectacular pallette of sensual stimulations that tingle the nerves with the thrust of lust and unease - you can't avert your eyes, you won't avert your eyes, you don't want to avert your eyes. Regardless of moral inclinations or determination to hate a movie that has decided to avoid a clear-cut stance - for the full duration of Pleasure, that state of hypnotising confusion is all that matters.