An actress portrays a nomadic woman leaving her life for the American west, experiencing real people who play versions of themselves. It’s a hit movie from an international female director who made a big splash at Sundance. And if you think I’m talking about Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, you are mistaken. The picture in question is Pleasure by Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, and it’s about a Swedish immigrant’s experience in the LA porn industry.

Acquired by A24 with plans to release uncensored and R-rated versions, Pleasure stars Sofia Kappel as Bella. She arrives in America from Sweden with 25 tattoos, pierced nipples, and is ready to toe the line between business and pleasure. Bella becomes Bella Cherry, an adult actress known for “stunts” (e.g. double anal). It propels her to stardom but, of course, more money for Bella also means more problems with friends lower on the totem pole and men higher in the entertainment hierarchy. 

We spoke with Ninja Thyberg out of Sundance about Kappel’s creative role in shaping what Bella would and wouldn’t do in porn, how male porn characters use feminist rhetoric to convince Bella to degrade herself, if Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls influenced the film, and how Pleasure is not only about the porn industry but the power structures in all entertainment. 

The Film Stage: Did you cast real porn actors and production people for the film?

Ninja Thyberg: Yes. Except Sofia Kappel, who’s the main character, everyone else in the film is played by actual people from the adult industry. All of them are playing themselves. Mark Spiegler, for example, plays himself with his real name—but others, like the more unsympathetic characters, I would say they are playing someone completely different than themselves. All of them are not playing the profession that they actually have. So some porn actors are playing directors. It’s a bit of a mix, but they are all from the adult industry.

Is there anything you wrote that Sofia wouldn’t do?

There was definitely stuff that she didn’t want to do that I took out. This is something that she says herself: the things you see that look like hard things to shoot were, most of the time, not the hardest things for her. Things she didn’t want to do were mostly small details. Things on the personal side she would be uncomfortable with. But we developed the last part of the script together. When Sofia got to the part, she also became, creatively, part of the process. It was important for me that she would be comfortable with everything, and that the character was as close to her as possible, to give it the right energy.

When Bella wants to stop filming a sex scene that involves torture, the two male actors use girl-power rhetoric to convince her to finish the scene. What do you think of American feminist rhetoric being deployed to make Bella do things she wouldn’t want to do otherwise?

It’s something that I’m criticizing in the scene. Since I’m Swedish, the film is also like a Swedish view of the American dream. The idea that I see as part of the American Dream is: you are supposed to be strong and confident and believe in yourself no matter what. I think the idea of “the American Dream” is very individualistic and doesn’t look at the whole picture of justice. 

While watching Pleasure I thought of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which is like his Dutch perspective of the American dream. Was it an influence on the movie?

I actually haven’t seen it, which is, in a way, a little bit embarrassing, but also I’m trying not to imitate work, but rather work with stories that are part of our shared collective. Those very traditional story types––we all have them inside of us because they are such a huge part of our culture. So I think even if I haven’t seen the film, I can do something very close to it because it comes from the same source. I’ve read in the last two days many different people are mentioning Showgirls, so I feel like I definitely need to watch it.

Since you began shooting the film in 2018, many performers shifted from studios and gatekeepers to OnlyFans.

That’s definitely because of the coronavirus. Of course, that’s a huge, huge shift. When I first started researching the industry in 2014 and started to get to know this world and the people, OnlyFans didn’t exist. I think that’s why it’s not part of the story—because OnlyFans became big after I had written the script. But I think it’s really interesting to see the power shift. That, more and more, the women are in control over production and it’s so much more safe. All the men previously owned the material or were also between the paycheck and the performer, so I think it’s a very positive development in one way, if you want to look at how much power women have over their work situation. And then the men too, of course, but in the mainstream porn world it’s not very common for guys to be stars. It’s in gay porn that the guys are important stars, but it’s usually focused on women in mainstream or heterosexual porn.

To that point, I noticed a lot of male porn performers are not attractive and often handle the camera as well as perform. I can’t help but make a connection to the traditional film industry. You have an ugly guy like Harvey Weinstein—and hundreds of men who run the global film industry—who are very much like the performers and gatekeepers in Pleasure. Even four years ago, Harvey Weinstein walked in the Women’s March at Sundance. I see Pleasure as a story type in our shared collective, as you called it, and a story about entertainment in all its forms as much as it’s about the porn industry.

Definitely. The film is, to me, not actually a story about the porn industry. It’s a story about our culture and power structures within each industry. When it comes to a mainstream movie industry or other media, they are super similar. It’s just that when it comes to the porn industry, the things that I want to say are taken to its most extreme point in porn. When it comes to showing patriarchal structures, what I find so interesting is women who take control over their image and become directors of themselves as a sexual object. They are sitting in both chairs as director and the performer; they are both the subject and object. 

What I want to talk about is capitalism and what it does to human relationships. It’s very easy to make a point about that when you use the porn industry as a metaphor. But it’s a comment on our society rather than my comment on the porn industry.

Pleasure premiered at Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24.

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