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‘Pleasure’ offers a ‘female perspective’ on what it’s like to shoot porn

  • May 18, 2022

Ninja Thyberg wants to change the way you watch porn. 

With her unflinching new drama “Pleasure” (in theaters now in New York and Los Angeles, expanding nationwide Friday), the Swedish filmmaker aims to put a human face on the adult film industry, challenging decades of pornographic movies that have degraded and objectified women. 

The visceral film follows an ambitious, aspiring porn star named Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who’s more focused on making money than friends when she arrives in Los Angeles from Sweden. But as she struggles to establish herself in the hypercompetitive adult film world, she’s forced to decide how much of her humanity she’s willing to give up in order to sign with a top agency. And soon, Bella partakes in a series of rough on-camera scenes that occasionally go from sensual to sadistic while she acts out men’s kinks and fetishes. 

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“The whole idea was to show the female perspective,” Thyberg says. “Porn, as it is today, is really the essence of the male gaze because it’s almost always shot from the male perspective for a male viewer. So it was about literally reversing the camera and showing the (female) point of view, but also what women need to hide in order to create these male fantasies.” 

Thyberg first saw porn at 16 when her boyfriend at the time showed her an adult VHS tape. “I got so shocked,” she recalls. “I realized his expectations of sex were so different than mine.” 

She became what she describes as an “anti-porn activist,” but said after “a very long journey digging into what I felt was such a taboo subject, I started to get more perspective and change my view.” Fueled by her interests in feminist pornography and gender studies, she made a 2013 short film about the porn industry, also titled “Pleasure.”

The feature-length “Pleasure,” which is not rated, frequently puts moviegoers in Bella’s shoes while she shoots hardcore sex scenes, with queasy camera movements, booming voices and harsh close-ups of men and their genitalia towering over the young woman. But it also shows the monotony of Bella’s everyday life: taking us through her exhaustive hygiene regimen before she walks onto a porn set, or as she attempts to film a sexy smartphone video in her cramped bedroom with a barking dog. 

The movie grapples with issues of consent, control and boundaries, as well as the inherent racism within adult film. In an early scene, Bella’s manager explains to her that she can make more money having sex with Black men on camera because this dynamic is considered one of the “most extreme” porn genres. 

“It’s important not only to show an industry that very few people have insight into, but it also kind of mirrors how society works,” Kappel says. “If our society is racist or sexist or segregated, it’ll be the same way in the porn industry.”

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“Pleasure” was shot in 2018: just after the #MeToo movement exploded amid sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but before intimacy coordinators became permanent fixtures on most Hollywood sets.

“We had never heard of an intimacy coordinator, but now that I know about it, I’m like, ‘How is this a new thing?’ It’s crazy that we didn’t have one and that I had to do that work. That was an extremely big and difficult responsibility, to make sure Sofia was feeling safe,” Thyberg says. Having befriended professional porn actors and crew members while researching the film, she was able to employ many of them on “Pleasure.” 

“It really helped that I was doing it with people from the industry,” Thyberg says. “They were used to handling someone doing something new or uncomfortable, and could really help with making sure that Sofia felt comfortable.” 

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Despite the intensity of the sex scenes and illusion of full nudity, Kappel was nearly always wearing shorts or underwear just off screen. And at a certain point, the nakedness became almost clinical. 

“I usually compare it to going to the gynecologist: It’s uncomfortable but they’ve seen what you have so many times before,” Kappel says. “The fact that I was surrounded by a lot of people who are used to being naked around people obviously helped me. And when we actually shot sex scenes or I had to be topless, I would tell the costume (department) that I didn’t want a robe immediately after, because that would make me feel like I had something to hide or cover, rather than just staying in the moment.” 

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