Performing Pleasure (2021) and Professionalising Pain: Monochromatic Power in Ninja Thyberg’s Debut

Without the birth of modernised, progressive adult sites that exercise full commitment to consent, universal pleasure and boundaries, the entity that is the current male-centred mainstream pornography industry remains unavoidable. In a society that seeks to question a woman’s bodily rights, the world of a female sex worker often continues to linger in objectification, prejudice and control. 

This is the narrative of self-named ‘Bella Cherry’, who, in Nina Thyberg’s cinematic debut Pleasure, attempts to ride the bodily-fluid wave of sexual prowess towards what culminates as an unshifting male-curated sense of power. Moving to LA from Sweden, Bella both uses and questions the stereotypes of youthful ‘innocence’ and exoticism that agents and directors seek to tether her to. In a desperate plea to become ‘the next big thing in Porn’, our lead uncovers little more than a confusion of self-worth, friendship and a façade of female empowerment within a grossly misogynistic profession.

Working towards sexual stardom from the gravel of neon Spandex ‘trailer trash’, Bella finds motivation in capturing the attention of top porn agent Mark Spiegler — playing himself. Yearning for the sovereignty of his exploited yet ethereally poised society of women that Bella herself finds both friend and foe within, the pursuit of the VIP rope culminates in redundancy. The reality of bodily restriction ties tighter knots than those of the film’s visceral bondage scenes. 

Interestingly, Bella’s encounters with BSDM offer her the most comfort in her journey. Drawing attention to the industry’s potential for change, her shoot with the equally biographical female porn director Aiden Starr, provides her with crucial reassurance in a way that both caters to its audience and prioritises the actors’ own pleasure. But, coming off the high of her first fully enjoyable session, there is a rough, aggressive scene that sees our protagonist outnumbered by men and guilted for her use of safe words and desire to stop. The emotional variance of Bella’s erotic repertoire offers consideration into the underlying ethics of aggressive kinks, as well as the normalisation of extremity in regard to the value of pornographic female sexual gratification.

Scaffolding her through however, is a small group of housemate friends who both tease and advise her as a newcomer to the industry. Championing her social media exports alongside the traditionalism of generic internet porn videos, the references to the modern socio-sexual media of today remained minimal, despite being an aspect of the narrative I expected greater depth into, particularly in regard to its increased capacity for content creator autonomy. 

Nevertheless, where Pleasure retains familiarity in its focus on Adult Container Site based videos, its evaluation on the blurred lines of pleasure, power and permissiveness linger in comfortable comprehension for all. Gaining social status at the expense of internal morality, Bella’s success is measured against her increasingly masculine sensibilities of coercion, conformity and unfilmed submissiveness, and in exchanging friendship for fame, she begins to wonder whether it was all worth it.

Thyberg makes a smart and authentic choice in casting predominantly genuine adult film stars, excluding Sofia Kappel who, as our lead, thrives in her first major acting role. In crafting a protagonist equally morally fluctuating, the film successfully avoids the dissection of actress and sex worker into divided and stark moral oppositions, instead offering a probing philosophy of performance that questions the difference between an actress playing a pornstar and a pornstar playing herself. With such an authentic cast, the ordinary mundanities and uncomfortable depths that hide behind antiseptic studio lighting come forth, and the myth of the female sex worker becomes nothing more than an insight into the ordinary working woman. 

Sex itself is never shown to us directly in the film, and the concept rarely appeals to viewers in a way that hints at arousal or personal intimacy. Where pleasure is both shown and lacking, the act maintains a professional dissonance throughout. 

The culminating beauty of this film, however, is found in its tactful use of the blank screen. Zoning out in scenes of submission and discomfort, Bella’s point of view is embroiled with the vacuousness of a black screen — rich with disassociation and superficiality, Thyberg makes visual the detachment of female pleasure against masculine dominance. The imagery is taken to nuanced grounds in the final scenes, in which we see Bella usurp sexual revenge onto her rival in a clinically floral girl-on-girl scene. Performing as the dominator, Bella’s aggression finds itself this time interlaced with blank screens of white. In an image that would typically signify a clarity and release of pain, Thyberg’s monochromatic contrasts propose, in actuality, the enduring undercurrent of female pornographic power to be the patriarchal mindset. 

In a bid to seize control, Pleasure ultimately questions such a desire against the search for sexual fulfilment; in an attempt to both divide and confuse the two, Thyberg’s debut offers no doubt that the current Adult Industry is in dire need for feminist revolution.

Mia Roe

You can catch Pleasure at Exeter Phoenix this weekend!

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // PLEASURE | Official Trailer #2 | Exclusively on MUBI / MUBI

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