(4½ stars out of 5)
Pleasure (2021) Directed by Ninja Thyberg
Devastating, deleterious, hard-edged and provocative yet founded with a visceral veracity that reverberates with substantial urgency. This aggressive and peremptory uncensored view of the indecorous and scandalous pornography industry is hauntingly, if brutally, necessary for its contemporary sociological depth in arguments and perspectives on 21st century feminist concerns. This film with its cynically hedonistic title is the staggeringly adventurous first feature from Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg, who adapts her 2013 short film of the same name Pleasure into a more exhaustive and voluptuous format; and tellingly does nothing more than demonstrate her imposing talent for transgressing the cinematic apparatus by taking its images to the extreme. How to make a film with barbaric explicitness about the modus operandi and vivendi of the porn industry without going over the line of exploitative triteness?
More than certainly, that is the most complex conundrum that director Ninja Thyberg had during the pre-production stage and more emphatically during filming. Pleasure is exceedingly far from being an exploitation film, however it is very close to being misinterpreted as such. Within this disruptive plot we can find an honest denunciation of the worst in the world of sexual entertainment but analogously, and more philosophically the thorny propensity to examine with a moral nihilism that lascivious environment, it is a scrupulous critique of a male-dominated society. Yet, the dramatic profoundness of this filmic narrative prompts me to question the manifesto, leaving me with a more ambiguous decipherment. The formidable punch of this graphic film that leaves you with almost nothing to the imagination, leaves the film’s thematic personality purely in evidence, but the deliberate explicitness opted for by this production also has a knack for making its themes expansive, even beyond allegories. Thyberg’s dauntless direction gets me caught up in a convoluted dilemma, which is simply stated, yet thinking about it is when the intellectual battle makes it all the more complicated. What exactly does she want to tell us about the supposed patriarchy? Is it a social product or is it the result of innate differences between the sexes?
To carefully answer these doubts is already a subject that enters into a sociological phenomenon, but filmically one can at least specify how the material of this film is powerfully effective in unsettling and confronting us mentally and stirring us emotionally. The premeditated design of this film is formless and feather-light, just like the null desires and motives of the main character, and even externally in the lustrous volumes, it establishes from its digital levels the same lustful façade of a professional pornographic video. These intentional functions further construct the conceptual provocation of the script’s subject matter. At times it feels so uncomfortable to the point of defiance, it contrasts filmic reality intermingled with the shallow forms of a pornographic shooting. Consequently, it is equally vulgar, hardcore and gratuitous in depicting sexual acts. Indeed this is a film that understands very well where to use subtlety and where to proliferate the overexposure of pornographic acts. Thematically it is built on subtleties, visually it is articulated with direct aggression.
This intense form of filmmaking is decidedly very pronounced, very extreme and even abrasive. Nevertheless, it is a daring formula that holds its ideas firmly and does not rest until it conveys with incorporeal corrosiveness the crisis of sexual roles in culture. But as much as it is a film that relies heavily on its violent density and its imposing graphic depiction of the world of the sex industry, its strong functionality is also in large part thanks to a tour de forcé performance by Sofia Kappel, who plays one of the most psychologically detrimental roles ever seen in contemporary cinema. It’s the kind of performance that can give you only two possible outcomes, the role that leads to the failure of your acting career or the role that puts you revealingly in the eyes of the film industry. Sofia Kappel simply devours her character, penetrates the abstract psychology of the character and takes us to the limits of performance art, in terms of exposure and vulnerability.
Pleasure is the alternate version to the narratives that demystify the American dream within the world of Hollywood, this is a universe in parallel to that classic representation of the propagandistic falsehoods of an industry superficially caramelized but with a disgustingly bitter taste. It trades the dream of an inexperienced foreign actor who passionately desires to make it in the film world for that of a young actress who is willing to descend into the vicious mechanisms of pornographic fame in order to ascend to stardom. There are a lot of truisms in its structural idioms, that is a glaring flaw, but this gritty production’s gutsy investigation of the sordid underbelly surrounding this heterodox milieu never fails to be genuinely limitless in ambition. This film is so close to the scenario it portrays that it even involved natural industry people playing themselves. Whether emotionally abrupt in its cathartic nullity at the end or overly draconian in its vision, Pleasure is cinema made with expeditious truthfulness, raw and shattering. Sometimes we forget how pernicious a camera can be.