Pleasure Principle: Ninja Thyberg subverts the gaze

Sofia Kappel is adult film star-on-the-climb Bella Cherry in Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure.
Sofia Kappel is adult film star-on-the-climb Bella Cherry in Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure.

Pleasure filmmaker Ninja Thyberg on womanhood, ass destruction, how capital erodes empathy and the horniest Almodóvar film.

This article includes graphic discussion relating to the adult-film industry.

The new drama Pleasure begins with a fresh-faced Swede going by the moniker Bella Cherry clearing LAX customs, eager to take a bite out of the American porn industry. Within the week, she’ll be facing down the business end of an erect penis in her first hardcore scene. Set aside the specific nature of her ambitions, and she’s not all that far from the crossroads that Pleasure filmmaker Ninja Thyberg found herself facing earlier in the 2010s.

The first-time feature director gained entry to the Cannes Film Festival’s shorts program in 2013 with an intense, immodest look at an actress prepping for the double-anal scene that she’s convinced will put her profile over the top. While the frank treatment of sex work raised eyebrows aplenty and generated the attention necessary for an expansion to feature length, Thyberg realized that she’d need to start over if she wanted accuracy in her audacious thesis about the imperfect intersection of womanhood and labor in the biz.

Bella Cherry, in yellow, performs a scene for director “Axel Braun” (played by filmmaker Axel Braun, who has had things to say about Pleasure). 
Bella Cherry, in yellow, performs a scene for director “Axel Braun” (played by filmmaker Axel Braun, who has had things to say about Pleasure). 

So began a years-long journey through a milieu Thyberg had only studied in her university courses on gender—suddenly a real place full of real people. As she amassed contacts and insinuated herself into Los Angeles’ local scene, Thyberg refined her goals and set her sights on a balancing act with higher stakes: no longer simply to expose the seamy underbelly of a trade most outsiders already hold in contempt, but to show how the power imbalances enabling abuse exist in porn, without defining the art form itself.

I see that everything she’s going through can be a metaphor for things I’ve gone through, and I’ve never been a porn star. We’re under the same mechanisms of power.

—⁠Ninja Thyberg

The resulting feature film, with first-timer Sofia Kappel in the leading role, is a bracing revision of the classic star-is-born narrative. The trajectory from ingénue to prima donna is complicated and supercharged by the particularity of detail. (If you’ve never stopped to think about the realities of douching, that will change.) Bella Cherry likes being watched, it’s just the ancillary bullshit of capitalism known to all freelancers—the horrible coworkers, the callous bosses, the way competition turns us into pettier versions of ourselves—that’s getting her down.

Bella (Kappel) and her roommate Joy (Zelda Morrison) create content for their social profiles. 
Bella (Kappel) and her roommate Joy (Zelda Morrison) create content for their social profiles. 

To very little surprise, controversy has followed Thyberg since Pleasure’s debut at Sundance in early 2021, from a collapsed A24 deal (with NEON picking up the pieces, promising to release only the full director’s cut) to trade-paper reviews declaring it an out-and-out denunciation of its subject matter.

It seems that everyone’s in consensus only on the passion of their stance; Lucy writes that “the unflinching look at the sex industry is deeply unsettling but also normalizes it for women in a way that I haven’t seen properly portrayed in such a film before.” AmandaTheJedi’s review reflects the more apprehensive attitude that some viewers resistant to extreme content may share: “A very hard watch and some people should skip this for that alone. If you’re sensitive to sexual assault, this is not a movie you should watch.”

Thyberg, who spoke with us via Zoom a few short days before her film’s long-delayed—yet all the more gratifying, as any porn pro can tell you—release, understands the aversion. But for the industry’s men who are bristling at her unsparing critiques, as well as those who would iron out the wrinkles of her writing into a more straightforward denunciation, she has a simple message: “Tough shit.”

Pleasure’s lead, Sofia Kappel, with writer and director Ninja Thyberg. — Photographer… Anders Wiklund/​TT News Agency/Alamy
Pleasure’s lead, Sofia Kappel, with writer and director Ninja Thyberg. Photographer… Anders Wiklund/​TT News Agency/Alamy

Starting at the beginning—the short that played at Cannes in 2013—what made that double-anal scene, which reappears as part of the feature version, your starting point for this project?
Ninja Thyberg: I wrote a thesis on pornography when I studied gender, and I had to watch a lot of porn for analysis, looking at all these different aspects of how porn is made and shot. I saw a double-anal scene during this time, and became curious. “That must be so painful,” I was thinking. “I don’t know how painful it is, but it can’t be pleasurable.” I wanted to know more about why someone would do this, the motivation. That’s the beginning of the idea.

Around then, I also saw a film called Weapons of Ass Destruction, and that was so on-point with the aggressive tone I was seeing in the male gaze. It’s not even trying to hide the aggression toward the female body. Ass destruction! It’s not saying, ‘Oh, she likes dicks in her ass so much she wants two of them.’ It’s about destroying. I was fascinated by this.

Bella Cherry goes hunting for influence at an industry party. 
Bella Cherry goes hunting for influence at an industry party. 

In the years between filming this scene the first time for the short and recreating it for the feature, did your view of the action change?
Absolutely, because the first time around I had never actually been on a porn set or met the real people. It was trying to be authentic, but I had no real knowledge. This has been a life-changing process—entering this world, trying to understand it, seeing through someone else’s perspective and opening up my own.

I always wanted to focus on people as people, relatable human beings, but when I did the short, I wanted to do a film about the industry. I’ve always been interested in exploring how I can use the female gaze to challenge or expose the male gaze, and you can find a pure essence of the male gaze in porn. I wanted to tell the story from the point-of-view of a woman who’s in an objectified position. 

The more time I spent around porn, I feel now that the film is more about dealing with womanhood, whatever you want to call it, patriarchy. With a little distance, I see that everything she’s going through can be a metaphor for things I’ve gone through, and I’ve never been a porn star. We’re under the same mechanisms of power.

Gender is a huge part of the film and its vantage of the industry. As a thought experiment, what do you imagine an equivalent of Pleasure set in gay porn would look like, where the gender dynamic isn’t so clear-cut?
Hmm. I feel I know so little about that part of the business. They’re not all that connected. It’s become a little easier for male performers to pass between both, but that used to be a taboo sort of thing. But, huh, let’s see. I’d have to find something else to focus on in how the vectors of power work, who has the privilege and who doesn’t, the details of that dynamic. I’d still be looking at camaraderie and relationships versus profit, though, and how systems of capital push us away from empathy. I’d still answer the question of what effect work has on people. But right now, I wouldn’t know where to start!

Hear Mitchell Beaupre discuss Pleasure’s respectful BDSM scene in this Weekend Watchlist episode.
Hear Mitchell Beaupre discuss Pleasure’s respectful BDSM scene in this Weekend Watchlist episode.

You’ve said that you wanted to avoid condemning porn, or portraying it in a broad way, so how do you show the impact of physical pain without casting judgment on rough sex itself?
So we have these two scenes, back-to-back, which show the first BDSM power-play shoot, and the threesome afterward. We have the stereotypical gender roles, she’s tied up and he’s dominant, but it’s done in a respectful and caring way. It’s about experiencing a fantasy and going on a journey that’s fictional. You can watch a horror movie, and of course you know not to kill people. I wanted to emphasize this, that there’s variety in these experiences.

What’s always been crucial to me in telling this story is that the negative things Bella goes through aren’t because she’s having sex on camera. Having sex on camera isn’t an exploitative thing in and of itself. There’s nothing damaging about making porn, but inequalities wired into porn complicate that. Every industry has its power structures, and people using them.

What are your thoughts on other non-pornographic films set in the porn industry? 
This—from today’s contemporary perspective, with a female point-of-view—hasn’t been done before. Boogie Nights, for instance, that’s in the ’70s. It’s a different world. I think people are more comfortable dealing with porn when it’s not part of the here and now. You don’t have to deal with your own porn use, or your place in the business. I haven’t found much inspiration in other films about pornography, anything I’d want to be similar to. They mostly showed me what I don’t want to do.

I’ve spent so much time getting to know this world and thinking about how to do it justice properly. Anyone doing this without spending that time, you’re going to get things wrong, and I’m not sure a lot of people who have made movies about this topic are willing to spend that time. I’m hoping Pleasure might open doors for more films about porn in the future, because it’s absurd: how much porn we consume, what a big part of our culture it is, and how little we address it. It’s a media double standard. It’s hard to show this in a theatrical film, but very easy to go home and see it on your computer. I hope that changes.

The unforgettable cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 drama Boogie Nights. 
The unforgettable cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 drama Boogie Nights

Pleasure has already generated strong positive and negative reactions among the real-world porn actors in your cast. Some are pleased with the finished product, and others are saying that they had something else in mind when they agreed to make this. What’s your response to the response?
If you are a man, and you see this film, it will not be what you expected, because you have never seen through this perspective. Tough shit. It will probably be uncomfortable.

In the credits, Ruben Östlund is listed as “mentor to the director”. What does that entail?
We got to know each other when I’d done some short films that he’d seen and liked. He was a huge inspiration to me, someone to look up to. He suggested that I come present my project to Plattform, the production company he started with his producer Erik Hemmendorff. I did, they took me on board, Erik became a producer on Pleasure, and that was a big part of the process.

Casting for Pleasure. 
Casting for Pleasure

You’ve said in other interviews that the biggest challenge was working with three crews at the same time—one from the United States, one you brought from Sweden, and one from the porn industry. How’d this Tower of Babel situation work?
Oh yeah, so many cultural clashes. I’m used to working at an indie scale, very small crew, and so it’s a flat organization where everyone helps with everything. I’m the leader, but I’m—it’s almost a vulnerability, a willingness to ask “well, what do you think?” That’s one thing: the hierarchy was totally different.

I sometimes thought it might make the US crew insecure to see me admitting when I don’t know things and asking for help, instead of just giving the orders. It was a big crew, but I like to improvise, change things as it occurs to me during a scene. That was difficult, with this many people.

And then the porn crew, they’re used to shooting everything once, rarely doing retakes for dialogue. You can shoot a feature-length film in one day, and they weren’t used to doing things over and over and over again. I’d ask to go again, and they’d be like, “But what were we doing wrong? Are you happy with this?”

Bella shops her wares at an industry convention.
Bella shops her wares at an industry convention.

You hear a lot that porn actors are excellent improvisers, good on their feet during a take.
Absolutely, they’re amazing, because if you’re going to do porn, you have to be really good at blocking out the camera, being present during the moment, creating a connection to your scene partner, being aware of chemistry and adapting to it—these are the core skills of acting, pornographic or no. They’re great, and I’ve loved learning about how many different ways to make a movie there are.

A24 originally purchased the movie for distribution, but there was some disagreement over a proposed R-rated cut that landed you at NEON. What had to be cut to achieve that R rating?
All I can say is this: I’m very happy NEON is releasing it in its original form.

Gael García Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2004 noir, Bad Education. 
Gael García Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2004 noir, Bad Education. 

Very diplomatic. Last thing: do you remember the first movie you saw that made you want to direct your own movies?
It was Almodóvar, Bad Education, when Gael García Bernal is playing a woman referred to as a “transvestite” in the film, the terminology being different today. But seeing Bernal dressed up and in makeup, I was so turned on. I remember I felt so horny, seeing a male body so beautiful, portrayed in the way I felt I’d only seen women portrayed. It made me realize, “Oh, this is what it’s like for men all the time. Why do I never get to see this?”

In our culture, men aren’t often objectified for women—I think it’s more common to see gay men objectified for other men. I see less of that with heterosexual men, and I figured I had to create an image like that. A lot of my previous work had also been about finding ways of seeing men. Pleasure does not mainly focus on men as sexual objects, but I did try to turn the camera around.


Pleasure’ is in US theaters now, via NEON.

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