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The Porn Star Protagonist In 'Pleasure' Is A Woman Of Fascinating Contradictions

·8-min read
Sofia Kappel in a scene from
Sofia Kappel in a scene from

Sofia Kappel in a scene from "Pleasure." (Photo: ©Plattform Produktion, Courtesy of NEON)

This article contains spoilers for “Pleasure.”

Often just the mention of a woman aiming to catapult to the top of the male-dominated porn industry provokes a number of “get it, girl!”-like reactions in today’s more sex-positive era. And understandably, because female sexual agency should be championed and it is a natural right, as is making safe spaces for women to prosper in the sex industry.

So, it makes sense that Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), the 19-year-old porn-star-in-the-making at the center of writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s film “Pleasure,” proudly signs her social media posts with “#ProudSlut” and dons a tee with the words “Girls Run Thangs” on it. She’s both coquettish and affirmed — and always, always aware of the power she has to lure the male gaze.

But as Thyberg takes us on Bella’s journey, we learn how the character becomes achingly cognizant of the impositions of that power as well as her own expendability in the business that largely caters to male gratification. And she responds to that in complicated ways.

“Mostly for me, it’s about looking at patriarchy through the eyes of a young woman,” Thyberg told HuffPost. “But it’s also about other inequalities and hierarchies and different classes of society. Since I’ve been working on it for so long, I feel like there’s so many things that I want to talk about or add to it.”

It’s true. Back in 2013, Thyberg gave us the same-titled short film and shot most of the feature-length drama in 2018.By then, she had been researching the porn industry for over 10 years, initially as a self-professed “anti-porn activist” before she was enlightened by feminist porn. So, to say that “Pleasure” was influenced by many different, and sometimes conflicting, ideologies is an understatement.

Sofia Kappel and Revika Reustle in
Sofia Kappel and Revika Reustle in

Sofia Kappel and Revika Reustle in "Pleasure." (Photo: ©Plattform Produktion, Courtesy of NEON)

But that’s also what makes it such a fascinating and complex watch. Bella embraces the role of an aspiring porn icon yet one that is both conditioned and endangered by patriarchal standards. That’s epitomized in a pivotal moment in the film where Bella performs a hardcore sex scene, the kind she’s been begging to do because she thinks it will take her to the next level of her career, and she realizes too late how violent it is.

A bevy of thoughts about the tenuous line between having control and being controlled in this space instantly spring to mind, as does the murkier question of choice. Another reason Bella wanted to do a rough sex scene was because she feels that “submissive” is her niche role. But is that because it’s so pervasive with female performers or she legitimately likes it?

“I don’t think that I could answer that question,” Thyberg responded. “I’ve tried to create someone that is as real as all the people that I have met [in the porn industry]. I think it’s such a complex thing. Why do you do the things you do? For me, [it’s] an endless philosophical question.”

Fair enough. What motivates Bella seems to be a sequence of events leading up to but especially following this scene, which was shot in one day with two male performers and Kappel, making her astounding screen debut. Bella has only recently arrived in Los Angeles from her native Sweden, where Thyberg and Kappel are also from, and is hellbent on becoming a star.

And that, as many of us across all industries certainly understand, can call for sacrifice.

Sofia Kappel in a scene from
Sofia Kappel in a scene from

Sofia Kappel in a scene from "Pleasure." (Photo: ©Plattform Produktion, Courtesy of NEON)

At one point during the hardcore sex scene, Bella tearfully yells for the shoot to stop and it abruptly does. But Bella arrives at another question of choice when the men in charge tell her that she won’t be paid if she doesn’t finish the shoot. She begrudgingly yet determinedly completes it.

But that’s not because it’s a matter of financial necessity, Thyberg said, recognizing that she is a privileged white woman with health care. Rather, it’s primarily a byproduct of Bella being an active participant in a capitalist society. “I don’t think it’s the actual money,” the director added. “When she already went through everything she went through, and if she would then leave empty-handed, she would completely feel like a loser.”

And for someone like Bella, a strong-willed teen desperate to prove her worth, every experience needs to move her forward in one way or another. It could be the money, or the fact that she consents and decides to stay that gives her some sense of power over what happened to her. But those things would also mean that she has to suppress the more painful truths.

“That’s a way of not feeling as a victim,” Thyberg suggested. “Because then she gains something from it. It’s a mental thing of feeling like ... But I got something in return or [that] this was a choice. It was a job. I didn’t only just get used and abused.”

True, though the idea of subverting victimhood can be tricky to move through psychologically, and to convey in a fictional format like “Pleasure” that is inspired by real-life experiences. Thyberg noted, though, that while she hasn’t observed a scene like the one Bella is in, she has been privy to detailings of “shady” situations.

"Pleasure" star Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry on a porn set. (Photo: ©Plattform Produktion, Courtesy of NEON)

“I’ve heard my fair share of stories and I’ve seen that type of porn, and I know enough about it, and heard all the witnesses,” she added. “I haven’t seen anything exactly like that, but not very far from it either.” (One of the several real-life porn actors Thyberg cast in “Pleasure” claims that there are protocols in place to ensure rough sex scenes like the one Bella does rarely happen).

How Bella processes, or rather refuses to process, what happens to her says a lot about her state of mind as well as the more complicated images of feminism, victimhood and survival that Thyberg wrestles with throughout the film. After receiving no support from the male agent who set her up with the producers of that scene, Bella seems to resolve herself to the perceived reality that she must conform to the patriarchal lens in order to endure in the industry.

For Thyberg, that’s a way to divest from the more delicate portrayals of female survivors we’re used to seeing on screen or even the way we discuss them in real life. “We have a tendency to also reproduce the male gaze by constantly talking about women as fragile, and focusing so much on the victim aspect,” she said.

To be fair, Bella, much like the protagonist in “I May Destroy You,” Michaela Coel’s brilliant series about sexual consent, is a woman of various contradictions. She’s both badass and villainous, a victim as well as a perpetrator. She exploits just as quickly as she is exploited.

“She’s sometimes the victim or in the bottom of some kind of hierarchy, but sometimes she’s also the one in the top,” Thyberg said.

Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in
Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in

Sofia Kappel as Bella Cherry in "Pleasure." (Photo: ©Plattform Produktion, Courtesy of NEON)

Few moments in “Pleasure” exemplify that as much as when Bella, soon after the rough sex scene debacle, is on a different shoot with her friend and fellow porn actor Joy (Revika Reustle). Joy confides in her that she’s concerned about reuniting with a man on set who harassed her in the past. When Joy later tells the director that she doesn’t feel safe with him there, she turns to Bella for support. But Bella plays down what he did as “a joke.”

It’s a crushing moment to bear as, once again, it’s a choice Bella makes that is so rife with complexity. This is an opportunity for her to have female allyship in the industry, but by this point she’s abandoned that for her own sense of success.

As Thyberg put it, “Profit rules over solidarity or empathy.”

Bleak as that is, there is no question about it. And it’s fascinating to see a female lead character embody a range of conflicts that show the full capacity of her humanity. As basic as that might be, it’s still considered an anomaly on-screen.

“I think it is really important to have the hero that you identify with also show that that kind of behavior doesn’t have anything to do with someone being good or evil,” Thyberg concluded. “It is a system that creates that kind of behavior. And she’s human.”

“Pleasure” was released in limited movie theaters on May 13 and expands to wide release on Friday.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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