‘Pleasure’ review: The fine line between empowerment and exploitation in adult entertainment
Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in 'Pleasure.' | Courtesy of NEON

The film Pleasure will make many people uncomfortable. It seems to do so unapologetically, as it explores the adult entertainment industry through the eyes of a female newcomer who is determined to be a porn star at any cost. The feature film debut by Ninja Thyberg is a layered exploration of female empowerment, workplace culture, sex work, and entertainment. It’s raw and unfiltered. It is neither a condemnation nor a celebration of sex work and adult entertainment. Rather, it dares the viewer to challenge their preconceived notions, no matter which side of the debate they find themselves on.

Written and directed by Thyberg, Pleasure follows the journey of a young woman named Bella Cherry as she breaks into the Los Angeles porn industry in the hopes of becoming an adult film star. Sofia Kappel plays Bella, who is new to the United States from a small town in Sweden. Kappel gives a strong first-time performance and leads an ensemble cast of adult industry actors. The plot is simple enough, but the happenings along the way of Bella’s journey are what make the movie engrossing. This is a coming-of-age story, one in which the character at the center just happens to be a porn actress.

Sex happens, both in daily life and particularly in this film—a lot. And just like in daily life, this film, as it explores the different kinds of sex, will make many people uncomfortable and defensive, thus causing them to possibly miss out on the meaningful undertones. Thyberg does not glamorize the porn shoots; they are workplace environments, some good and some not so good, and Bella has to maneuver through all of them. Something that stands out is just how unsexy and technical Thyberg makes the scenes in which Bella has to be on set. It is clear the director isn’t trying to make a drama skin flick, although plenty of skin is shown, but rather a film exploring an industry that is often a mystery to many, one with plenty of myths surrounding it.

Bella is dynamic as the central character for a number of reasons. One of those is the subversion of a trope regarding why she is pursuing a career in adult entertainment in the first place. Bella makes a point to say that she’s doing this because she likes the idea of performing through something she enjoys—sex. Of course, she’s still exploring the type of sex she likes, but she’s not a woman down on her luck. She’s not portrayed as a character with some sordid past and trauma. That’s not to say that women who fit that profile in the industry don’t exist, but Bella isn’t one of them. She sees it as a job she thinks she might like to do. This choice of Bella’s motivation alone will be polarizing for viewers.

That’s because when dealing with the human aspect of sex work, there is debate on why people, often women, find themselves doing it. There’s a notion in some circles that if these women could choose any other line of work they would, and that they only do it for the fast money. And in some extreme cases, they’re forced into doing it through sex-trafficking operations. This of course is also connected to the debate on whether sex work should even be called “work” in the first place. Progressive political circles, where female empowerment is regularly championed, aren’t exactly on the same page regarding this topic.

The adult entertainment industry is reportedly worth millions to billions of dollars. Yet, based on some news reports, it would seem it’s mainly those at the top (directors, producers, distributors) who make the lion’s share of the money. Data from the last year suggests most porn actresses make between $300 to $1,000 dollars per shoot. This puts them in a position to need to do as many scenes as possible in order to make a living wage. And more risqué sex acts garner a bit more cash, pushing performers into certain acts that they may not be comfortable with, but they do it for higher wages.

There are some that believe sex work can be empowering to women if they’re able to organize and de-stigmatize the profession. Others argue this kind of labor will always be exploited in a capitalist society where the drive for profit and sexism are systemically embedded. This angle, interestingly enough, is perhaps the theme at the heart of Pleasure. Bella is a worker, and, in trying to find her way, she walks the fine line between empowerment and exploitation. Is this not the predicament many workers, no matter the profession, find themselves in?

A great example of this is the contrast between two of Bella’s work experiences. In one scene, she’s on a set with a female director that makes her feel comfortable. There are constant check-ins, breaks, and communication. Her workplace is safe and assuring, even though the film she’s doing involves aggressive BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism). Bella walks away from the experience thinking she has really found her niche in the market. Then, she goes to another set where, unlike the previous workplace, the director does not go over any safety protocols with her. She is thrown into an aggressive scene with little to no prep. Bella comes away from that shoot feeling violated. Both scenes involve aggressive sex acts, but it was the one where her comfort as a worker isn’t honored that leaves her feeling the most exploited.

Thyberg does a fine job in handling the depictions of sex as well. It’s a film involving porn, but it isn’t a porno. Each sex scene serves a purpose and is masterfully done to explore the feelings involved for the characters more than the actual act. It’s also interesting how there seems to be more male nudity than female nudity. Perhaps it is coincidental, but this too feels like a welcome change for a film exploring this subject.

Another highlight is the tone of the film. Because this is neither a glorification nor a condemnation, there is an equal balance between levity and seriousness. Emotional manipulations of pity or contempt are not evoked regarding any of the characters. It’s a coming-of-age slice-of-life of workers in an industry that can feel both liberating and confining. It’s not about wanting Bella to succeed in or get out of the porn industry, but rather about going on a journey with her to figure out where her wants and needs fit into the profession she’s chosen. The good acting, direction, and overall tone make it easy to go along for that ride.

At 105 minutes, Pleasure is just long enough to give us a taste without overstaying its welcome. No hard conclusions are made regarding labor, sex work, or the adult entertainment industry, but plenty is given in terms of food for thought. Some will relish how raw and unrepentant the film is in taking on the topic. Others may see the unabashed display of penises and other body parts and dismiss (or be distracted from) the probing undertones. But this isn’t a film that should be disregarded. If nothing else, it’ll get people talking in a time when the autonomy of women and how they choose to live and have sex is still somehow under government scrutiny. Pleasure is a relevant film and an overall good time.

Pleasure, unrated, will be in theaters May 13, 2022.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.