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Sofia Kappel in 'Pleasure'
NEON

Entertainment

How 'Pleasure' Explores The Porn Industry With Care

Director Ninja Thyberg and star Sofia Kappel talk about their NC-17 exploration of the ups and the downs of the porn industry.

Ninja Thyberg used to be, in her own words, an “angry anti-porn activist.” Speaking over Zoom earlier this month, the 37-year-old Swedish filmmaker admits that, when she was 16 in the early 2000s, she was an active member of a group that stood in staunch opposition to the entire premise of people having sex on camera. It’s a rather interesting origin story for a director whose first feature film, NEON’s recently-released Pleasure, is all about the porn industry — especially since Pleasure itself doesn’t seem to take a stance on either side of the debate.

Rather, the unflinchingly complex film uses its platform to delicately explore the broader reality of studio sex work, paying equal attention to the occupation’s highs, lows, and whatevers. Traces of what Thyberg likely latched onto during her anti-porn days still abound — brutal, unenjoyable sex; abject fetishization; overt coercion; exploitative agents; overall abuses of power — but Pleasure is equally invested in inspecting the alternative experiences to better examine why the controversial industry continues to be such a draw for those who seem to love working within it.

That Pleasure feels so balanced isn’t a coincidence. As Thyberg aged into adulthood, the filmmaker began questioning her own beliefs and eventually found herself on a “long journey” towards understanding the other side of porn. “I changed my perspective a lot during that time,” she says. “For a while, I became very interested in feminist pornography, and then I started to ask, What is ‘feminist pornography,’ and who's to say what's ‘degrading’ or ‘empowering’ for someone?

During this same time, Thyberg had been making short films that tapped into her preoccupation with matters of gender roles and performance. And as she fell deeper down a rabbit hole of porn industry research, the director decided that merging her two interests “felt like a natural step.” By 2013, Thyberg had directed a short film version of Pleasure, which played at Cannes and subsequently put her into contact with porn industry heavyweights. Now, after spending several years continuing her research (this time: in America, on real porn sets, alongside real porn actors), the director is back with its visceral feature adaptation, now playing in theaters.

In its latest iteration, Pleasure follows 20-year-old Bella Cherry, an inexperienced but determined aspiring porn actor, who has traveled all the way from small-town Sweden to try her luck at making it big in Hollywood. The uncut NC-17 film is expectedly graphic, marking Bella’s ascent through a number of different porn shoots. One of the earliest finds the film in its sweetest spot (the truest to its ironic title), tracking Bella as she films an erotically empowering woman-directed BDSM scene with an attentive partner who continuously responds to her needs.

Unfortunately, this positive experience gives Bella a false notion of what this industry can sometimes look like. In a rush to prove herself to potential casting agents, Bella decides she wants to do more hardcore work, only to find that not all hardcore scenes are created equally. In what is easily the film’s most viscerally unsettling scene, Bella endures a rough filmed encounter with two merciless men who rough her up, guilt her for temporarily trying to pull out, gaslight her into thinking that she asked for all this, and ultimately leave her in tears as she heads home. It’s a deliberately disturbing scenario that boldly resists easy answers — Bella does tell her agent (and her eventual scene partners) that she is open to and capable of handling rough sex, after all — but it’s also one that underscores the tricky tightrope Thyberg treads.

This refusal to exalt or diabolize the porn industry extends to Bella herself, who is refreshingly not painted as merely a victim of the system. This is surely a testament to Thyberg’s nuanced screenplay, but without the right actor in the role, Bella, who exists at the figurative (if not also literal) center of nearly every frame, could have still come across as a powerless cipher. Luckily, however, newcomer Sofia Kappel, in her on-screen debut, rises to the challenge, somehow imbuing her character with both a childlike sense of amazement at her surroundings and a disturbingly cutthroat mentality about what it takes to truly make it in this world.

Despite having no prior interest in acting (professionally or otherwise), Kappel was drawn to the project as both an opportunity to do something outside of her comfort zone and as a way to provide “sexual education” to people whose own might be inadequate. “In Sweden, which is a very progressive country, we have sexual education, but it’s very thin. So for a lot of young people, their sexual education is porn. But when people consume porn, they tend to replicate those images, and I think that’s harmful,” she explains. Pleasure, for what it’s worth, still shows sexual images many would find “harmful,” but the actress appreciates how the film exposes porn as more of a meticulously crafted fantasy than a realistic depiction of standard intercourse. Thanks to its central focus on what goes on behind the scenes in porn, Pleasure can, for instance, show rough sex while simultaneously highlighting how it requires special care, too. Plus, she just thought the message was important. “This movie is about so much more than just the porn industry,” she says. “It's about companionship. It's about patriarchy. It's about capitalism.”

For Thyberg, the film was also about subverting the norms of the porn genre without actually making a traditional version of it. The director achieved this in ways both practical (“I didn’t want to show [Bella’s] naked body being sexually abused. I think we’ve all seen too many naked female bodies being abused,” she says about her decision to film the sex scenes from Bella’s perspective, rather than from the usual men’s) and stylistic (in key parts of the sex scenes, the image slows and blurs — a clever trick used to show how Bella is attempting to dissociate from the moment). All tactics are used to ensure that the audience never loses sight of Bella.

Tricks aside, both director and star maintain that authenticity is paramount in a film like this. After years spent immersed in L.A.’s porn industry, speaking with the people who make and star in it, Thyberg had already put in the time. But Kappel, on the other hand, arrived to the project quite green, but very eager to learn. “As soon as I got the part, I flew out to Los Angeles with Ninja, and on my first day in the U.S., I went to a porn set,” she recalls with a slight chuckle.

“To me, what was important wasn’t only to understand how the industry works, because Bella doesn’t really know how the industry works,” Kappel continues, detailing how she attended porn industry events and parties, in character as Bella Cherry, to help prepare for the role. “I just wanted to get in the right headspace and have a genuine understanding and appreciation of the people in the industry because I wanted to portray Bella as authentically as I could.”

To ensure that Kappel could achieve this, Thyberg knew she’d have to take extra precautions, starting by making sure the actress felt comfortable working alongside every person she would have to film with. “I was so involved in the pre-production and in the casting,” Kappel tells me, going on to explain how her big, brutal threesome scene was one of the easiest to film because she trusted her scene partners so much. “It was a huge responsibility for Ninja to make sure that I was safe and comfortable at all times, so I had a say in who I made those scenes with.”

“By the time we started shooting, [Sofia and I] had already been developing the character together for like nine months,” Thyberg tells me later. “She had probably been through like 200 auditions because I wanted her to meet everyone that we auditioned and make sure that they had a good connection and also that she felt comfortable with them.”

Thyberg believes that the “really strong relationship” she established with her star was key to making the movie she wanted to make — one she had been making, in a way, since she first joined that anti-porn activist group two decades ago. Much about her worldview has evolved since then, but the director has never lost sight of her central interest in discussions about bodily autonomy and female empowerment. If her film ended up exploiting her lead, would it really be any better than the non-feminist porn that pits male satisfaction over female pleasure?

Near the end of our conversation, I follow up on one of Thyberg’s earlier answers, in which she expressed an initial nervousness about someone from the porn industry “calling [her] bluff” after the release of her Pleasure short film. Now that you’ve released a film that was actually informed by those same industry veterans, I inquire, have you received any new feedback?

“Everyone keeps telling me how authentic it is,” she responds, beaming with pride. “So many people who are part of the industry and who’ve seen it have come up to me or written to me to say that it's so authentic, that I'm literally telling their exact story.”

I wonder what her 16-year-old self would say now.

Pleasure is playing in select theaters now.

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