I I thought everyone was mad at me,” says Ninja Thyberg, the Swedish director of what is probably the most explicit film to hit theaters this year, maybe even this decade. “I thought people in the porn industry were crazy; the feminists would be crazy; the Conservatives would be pissed. I expected a lot of hate.” Instead, she says with a grin, she reacts to her daring debut pleasure were just the opposite.
Even though 37-year-old Thyberg just received the prestigious Women in Motion Young Talent Award at the Cannes Film Festival – which is given annually to an outstanding female director – her concern might have been justified. pleasure is a raw, unfiltered look at the adult film industry that focuses on 19-year-old Linnea. Impeccably played by newcomer Sofia Kappel, Linnea leaves her native Sweden for Los Angeles to become an X-rated superstar named Bella Cherry.
It’s no surprise that her journey to the top has been fraught with difficulties, but the film’s graphic nature certainly is. So much so, that the project’s original distributor, A24 – known for its lightning-fast likes euphoria — reportedly wanted to release a more cinema-friendly edit. A24 is no longer involved in the film and Thyberg is keeping a low profile as to what actually happened. “All I can say is that I’m very happy that Neon released the film in its original form,” she says of the independent distributor that eventually took it on.
Many viewers will no doubt find the film overwhelming, particularly a harrowing rape scene. It’s kind of the point. pleasureThe power of . may lie in its shock factor, but it’s important to note that the film is also a tender take on an industry that can be treated as unworthy, though many of those who look down on it also see its production. Kappel admits that he was once one of those people.
“I was just as hypocritical as most [who] Consume porn,” says the 24-year-old. “I used it but I felt the women were traumatized and broken and that was the only possible reason they would do it [it].” Kappel visited adult film sets in LA as part of her research and quickly discovered that this was far from the case. “I have met women who have PhDs in psychology and mathematics. I met people who were into porn because they wanted to be famous. I’ve also met people doing porn for the “wrong” reasons. But I think basically it’s good when you make decisions for yourself.”
Thyberg himself researched the subject for years, first made a short film about the erotic industry – also called pleasure – during film school. As a teenager, she was an outspoken anti-porn activist, once arrested for her activism, but like Kappel, she struggled with her relationship with the material. As she delved further, Thyberg considered making her own feminist porn, but felt the subject deserved a broader, more cinematic approach. Her current stance on porn stems from nearly two decades of fascination with it.
“There’s nothing dangerous about sex and there’s nothing unethical about having sex on camera,” she says. However, she is aware that the adult industry is another area where women can be exploited. “I am against patriarchy, against capitalism and against profit over people. But that has nothing to do with people having sex in front of the camera.” Instead, the question, which one pleasure Attempts to emphasize isn’t an issue with on-screen intimacy, it’s an issue with power structures. “It’s about inequality in different ways and not about gender,” she explains. “Most porn sets are run by men. You have a structure in which people [in charge] are twice the age of the performer. Often the only person on set who is a woman is the performer.”
In many scenes in pleasure, that woman is Bella Cherry, and as the film traces her rise through the industry, it effectively becomes an allegory. Or, as Thyberg calls it, a “fairy tale”. Bella faces a variety of porn sets, each with varying levels of respect for its performers. She takes part in an ethical and female-directed bondage shoot, but also in a terrifying gonzo-style scene in which she is subjected to violent, rough sex against her will. It leaves Bella in tears. She then drives away in her car and stops to throw up.
The biggest challenge for Thyberg was to make a film about pornography without making the film itself pornography. “That’s why it took me six years to make it!” she says. “The first impulse is to reproduce the stereotype or cliché. If you want to do something different, you have to work harder, challenge yourself, and constantly reflect on yourself.” Thyberg’s approach was to ensure that, unlike most adult films, women held key positions on set. She also constantly tried to turn the male gaze. “I have never, never objectively pointed the camera at the female body,” she emphasizes. “Rather [I] vice versa – looking the other way or looking at the men. It was a constant discussion about it [the] Power of the camera, power of the composition.”
She thought about that constantly, not least because of her concern for Kappel, who was still a teenager when she was approached for the film. “I had this very young person who was on the verge of being almost naked and being subjected to degrading things and violence,” says Thyberg. “The most important thing for me was to make sure that what the main character is going through doesn’t happen [to] Really Sofia.”
pleasure was filmed in 2018, but if the film had been shot today, there would certainly have been an on-set intimacy coordinator – someone who would ensure full approval and respect between the cast and crew during production, but in an official capacity. Four years ago, such a role was not nearly as commonplace as it is today. Instead, Thyberg himself took the de facto position. During filming of more challenging scenes like the rape, Kappel and Thyberg’s other cast members and real-life friends — one of whom now officially works as an intimacy coordinator — were all out of their depth and stopped by constantly.
Kappel appreciated the effort. “[Ninja] took insanely big measures to make sure everyone felt safe and that it took minimal effort to say no,” she recalls. “No situation has ever felt unsafe or uncomfortable.” In fact, the film’s stark opening scene — an up close and personal shot of Bella Cherry shaving her vulva — was performed by Thyberg herself. “I turned it down,” says Kappel. “I said, ‘No way, that’s not going to happen’. Ninja preached throughout the film that she would never put me in a situation that she wouldn’t do herself, so it’s her vagina.”
Thyberg visited many real-life porn shoots while working on the film and found that every performer was listened to about what they did or didn’t want to do. However, she admits that the issue of consent is sensitive. in the pleasure, Bella eventually agrees to proceed with a shoot, despite feeling uncomfortable about it. She assumes she’ll get it over with rather than make a fuss. “I think women are often put through shoots where they’re suffering and they’re uncomfortable and they’re doing things against their will, but a lot of the guys aren’t aware of that,” says Thyberg. “It’s because we have these very problematic gender roles where women are so trained to please everyone. That’s also the nature of capitalism – it’s bad for business to take care of everyone.”
Thyberg wants pleasure to make us think before we demonize those who work in the adult industry. Especially when so many of us—whether we would ever admit it or not—consume the end product. “They’re just workers creating the content based on what people are looking for online,” she says, emphasizing that these stars are just giving viewers what they want, while many don’t know – or are unconcerned – that it might have been the product of an unethical shoot. “What do we need to change in our culture instead of thinking that we need to point fingers at the people who make porn?”
Pleasure hits theaters on Wednesday 15th June and will be available to stream on Mubi starting Friday 17th June