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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Pleasure’ is an Extreme and Honest Look at Making It in Porn

Sofia Kappel appears in Pleasure by Ninja Thyberg

The world of pornography is not for the faint of heart. To make it, you need to compartmentalize, have real inner strength, and a skillset that truly makes one a performer. All of that is fully realized in the extreme and unflinching Pleasure, currently shocking at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. As much as the content will prove far too graphic for most, it’s a bracing character study that captivates more than you might expect. It’s sexually explicit, sure, but it’s honest, raw, real, and even a little sweet. Somehow, it manages to find a balance, even if it’s unlikely to be a movie you’d ever want to watch a second time.

Pleasure goes there, that’s for sure. Co-writer/director Ninja Thyberg shows you more than you’d ever expect to see in a non erotic feature. Of course, there’s no eroticism to be found here, as this is far more a clinical depiction of making it (or not making it) in the business. The film never wants to titillate, only to educate. Without question, had this played in person at Park City, there would have been walkouts. At the same time, those individuals would have missed a hell of a movie, graphic as it is.

Jessica (Sofia Kappel) has come to Los Angeles in order to make it in the world of adult films. Taking the name Bella Cherry, she seemingly goes almost from the airport to her first porn set. After a mild freak-out, she completes her first scene, immediately developing a predilection for the job. Moreover, she wants to be one of the greats. That yearning will inform everything she does, as nary a day goes by that she doesn’t have her eyes on the prize.

Determined to be a star, Bella single-mindedly moves forward in the industry. While she’s hanging out with friends like Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), she’s also constantly cold-calling agents and producers who can get her to the next level. As she rises higher, she’s willing to do more and more extreme acts, which catch the attention of those she intends. However, does she have a limit, and more so, will she lose her agency in the process, or retain control of who she is?

The performance by Sofia Kappel is truly something to behold. It’s a brave and absolutely no-holds-barred turn. That’s not even including the sexually explicit content, which certainly contains its own kind of bravery. This is a drama that asks a lot of her, emotionally, and she delivers. There’s never a false note in this performance. I feel confident in saying that Kappel will end up having given one of the best turns in 2021 that almost no one sees. Highlights among the supporting cast, which is chock full of actors and actresses from the adult world, include Chris Cock (yes, that’s how he’s credited) and Revika Anne Reustle. The former is one of the few fully trustworthy male performers Bella encounters, while also someone unafraid to speak truths about the racism in porn. The latter makes Joy a spark plug and someone you wish you saw more of here. Reustle steals her scenes, even if Kappel is the true showcase.

Filmmaker Ninja Thyberg is completely unafraid to turn the dial up to eleven. Along with her co-writer Peter Modestij, Thyberg charts a familiar narrative, even if we’ve never seen it in this profession. It’s in her direction, which is full of close ups, shots of a sexual nature you’re not expecting, and takes that hold for longer than expected, that reveal a sense of style. She wants you to experience what Bella experiences, and for better or worse, she’s very successful. For some, it’ll be far too much, as if I even listed some of what you’d see here, it would cause a stir. For others, it’ll be downright captivating. Consider me mostly in the latter category.

Pleasure won’t be for everyone. In fact, it’s likely not for most. However, if you’re looking for something challenging and on the more extreme side, this stands out from the pack here at Sundance 2021. It’s an understatement to say there’s nothing else quite like this flick. If you can handle it, this is something to keep an eye out for, even if you’ll almost certainly not see it in this uncut form.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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