Sundance 2021 Review: Pleasure

Written by Taylor Baker

86/100

WARNING: EXPLICIT SEXUAL CONTENT

SYNOPSIS: Bella (Sofia Kappel) arrives in America with 25 tattoos, pierced nipples and a burning desire to make her mark in moving images. At Customs, when the U.S. agent asks the ambitious 19-year-old Swede if she’s in America for business or pleasure, there’s a beat. For Bella, who goes under porn name Bella Cherry, there is a fine line between business and “pleasure.”

Starting at the bottom, living with sloppy roommates in an innocuous shared house, she gradually enters the hierarchical world of adult cinema. As she bonds with her housemates, she discovers that the road to porn stardom demands that a young woman must practice and accomplish increasingly difficult and sometimes distressing “stunts.” This is the big leagues where performing a double anal on camera is like a professional skater’s triple axel. As time passes, Bella rises. She lands high-end adult movie agent Mark Spiegler (The 2012 Adult Video News Hall of Famer nicknamed Shylock plays himself). Leaving her roomies behind, Bella becomes a “Spiegler Girl,” taking limos to outrageous pool parties, filming scenes in fabulous Los Angeles mansions, and receiving an unsentimental education in the trade’s tricks.

Strong, self-confident but naive, Bella believes she can mold the corrupt system to satisfy her needs. But, in the end, she must confront whether she’ll pay with her soul for stardom, or not. That’s the high cost of being a hot young female body in the pleasure business from debut feature writer-director Ninja Thyberg whose 2013 short of the same name debuted at Cannes where it won a Canal+ Award.

REVIEW: There’s been what feels like dozens of Directorial Debuts at this years Sundance 2021 Film Festival. And only a handful touch the soaring heights and delicious biting criticism of Ninja(Nin-ya) Thyberg’s Debut Feature Film Pleasure. Cleverly titled as a response to a question that Jessica gives in the very start of the film. A love child of the industry reflexivity we saw in Refn’s The Neon Demon and the unrepressive imagery(full frontal male nudity) of Gaspar Noé’s oeuvre, Pleasure is entirely her own and rather than pulling us down her narrative–she makes us take it. Jessica is played by newcomer Sofia Kappel who by all appearances in the film has the makings of an unassuming and at times charismatic star. She assumes the name ‘Bella Cherry’ and embarks on a path to pursue a lucrative career in the Adult Film Industry.

Rather than casting her film with conventional performers, Thyberg chooses to lean on the talent that she seems to be dunking. At one point Kappel’s ‘Bella Cherry’ has finished shooting a scene and her face is covered in ejaculate. Rather than end the scene there, with the scene ostensibly finished the camera turns it’s sights off of Kappel’s face and pivots in real time into the camera and camera man she’s performing to. Uncannily clever Thyberg holds up the “black mirror” of who this was for in Kappel’s local experience, who it was physically aimed toward, and transfers the viewer of the Pornography from themselves to the man standing there. It’s a powerful shot that stands out amongst a half dozen equally powerful choices that Thyberg makes.

Inevitably the topic of sexual abuse arises, first as an offhand joke when she arrives from Sweden to her driver(Chris Cock) about why she wanted to join the industry. But this topic resurfaces, uncomfortably in two deceptively brutal scenes. Postulating consent in the “industry” as a philosophical problem in a brand new frame. Ultimately the extremity of Thyberg’s voice never broaches to crass, there’s always a tone of “this is how things are” to her depictions of sexuality, until ingeniously she once again flips the reality presented to the viewer on it’s head. Pleasure is a daring and unconventional piece of cinema that boldly and clearly announces Ninja as a contemporary filmmaker with a cultural criticism that goes past the surface level. If audiences will break convention to openly support and discuss her film, it seems inevitable that we’ll graced with more. A storyteller with a voice like this doesn’t stop after throwing just one punch.

I’ll leave you with a brief quote of Thyberg’s own words on the themes and her frame of thinking on her piece.

Ninja Thyberg, director of Pleasure, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Karin Stenwall.

“I think, unfortunately, a lot of people dehumanize the people that they masturbate to.”

Ninja Thyberg

The Neon Demon

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Visually and musically luscious, The Neon Demon is the latest great example of a film that rewards you for watching it in a movie theater. A dark space, large screen, and enveloping sound system (e.g. SIFF’s Egyptian theater) substantially magnifies the immersive nature of NWR’s cautionary tale about beauty, vanity, and jealousy, and allows the film’s exaggerated, bright, pulsating, and other-worldly atmosphere to firmly take hold of you.

Whether or not the narrative measures up to the film’s stylistic achievements is more debatable. The story follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a teenager from the Midwest hoping to make it as a model in LA, whose innocence and naïvete is gradually replaced by stunning self-assurance as she becomes aware of the power of her physical self and the lengths to which women would (and do) go to look like her. She’s increasingly exposed to the dangers of being envied, but her new found confidence blinds her from the closing in of circling sharks in fashion model form.

Jesse’s rapid ascendancy, and ultimate demise, functions as a rather straight-forward critique of an industry based on supremely shallow values and the jealousy and viciousness, even amongst supposed friends, that it cultivates. As a foundation for the trajectory of the story, Jesse’s emergence and downfall is compelling. What limits the film’s impact, ironically, is the lengths to which it goes to make its point. Unlike Drive, in which the stylized and extreme violence felt like a shocking but believable outcome, the grotesquerie into which the The Neon Demon occasionally dips feels more like directorial over-excitement. But it’s hard to criticize the periodic missteps when, on the whole, you can’t wait to see the movie again.

Michael Clawson originally posted this review on Letterboxd 06/25/16

Available on Prime Video