If you thought Red Rocket was a warts-and-all depiction of porn stardom, then Pleasure might be its perfect complement. Whereas Sean Baker’s Simon Rex vehicle is an outsider picture, mostly depicting post-porn stardom and pre-porn stardom, largely from a male perspective, Pleasure, a debut feature from Swede Ninja Thyberg, depicts the machinations of the industry itself, as experienced by its 22-year-old protagonist, Bella Cherry, played by Sofia Kappel.
While both films feature ingenue aspiring porn stars named after fruit, you could make a case that Pleasure retains the edge in boldness. The film opens with a closeup of Bella shaving her vulva in the shower and continues with countless erect penises, nary a prosthetic in sight (with no offense meant to Rex, who has proved he doesn’t need one). There’s also the plain facts of its release: initially acquired by A24, the distributor behind Red Rocket, A24 traded Pleasure‘s rights Neon in October, rumored to be the result of A24 wanting a different cut for a theatrical release. Neon is releasing the unedited version in New York and LA this weekend, to expand wider the following week.
There’s a push-pull in depictions of porn, between porn being seen as progressive or as retrograde, as feminist or as misogynist. It’s an argument that can go on forever, partly because it manages to encompass more than enough material to tell as sensationally a pro-porn or anti-porn story as the teller wants, with anecdotes in both cases that could be 100% true. For her part, Thyberg says this debate over porn is something of a lifelong project for her, and part of what drew her to the material in the first place. As she says, Pleasure, which she initially made as a short in 2013, evolved into something more “about power structures, and using the porn industry as a metaphor or a backdrop.”
Pleasure struck this reviewer (and I’ve spent my fair share of time around porn people myself, hearing all kinds of stories, both horrifying and heartwarming) as a thoroughly even-handed depiction. It’s a testament to Thyberg’s inherent fairness that the cast of Pleasure, aside from Kappel who is a young non-porn actress from Sweden, are all current and former porn professionals — from ex-improv comic-turned-ubiquitous porn actor Tommy Pistol to porn super-agent Mark Spiegel, to a brilliant supporting turn by Chris Cock. Thyberg enjoyed their full participation, even in scenes that portray some particularly nightmarish realities of the industry (one Pleasure scene in particular is even more horrifying than anything in Red Rocket, which was occasionally pretty horrifying in its own right, capturing the same stomach-turning dread with none of Red Rocket‘s ironic cheer).
That Thyberg makes porn industry insiders (and not ex-porn stars turned born again religious anti-porn crusaders, of which there are many) complicit in these unsettling scenes is a tribute to their veracity. And also to the fact that Pleasure is neither broadly pro-porn nor anti-porn. It’s a genuine exploration undertaken with respect for the characters involved.
And if that’s too high-minded, porn’s natural juxtapositions can’t help but be endlessly entertaining and occasionally hilarious. When my Pleasure screener expired the night before our interview when I had intended to rewatch it to prepare (I saw it the first time during Sundance), I had to ask to get it renewed. I ended up trying to watch it the following morning just before our interview, viewing this movie full of tumescent penises and closeups of shaved vulva on my laptop at the coffee shop where I do a lot of my writing, surrounded on this morning on either side by patrons literally reading the Bible and highlighting favorite passages. Life’s rich tapestry.
I was listening to another story about the porn world, and a porn producer told the journalist, “You can find whatever story you want to tell here.” What was it about that world that made you want to tell a story set there?
I’ve been working with this subject for over 20 years, and I think when I went there the first time in 2014, I had one idea. Also, I made a short film the year before. But that idea has really shifted during the process. I think when I started, I really wanted to focus on the porn industry because I’ve always been very interested in challenging the male gaze and, as a filmmaker, that’s what I see myself as having, a female gaze, exposing the male gaze, or challenging it. But the more time I spent there, the more the film started to be about saying something about our society and being a woman, talking about power structures, and using the porn industry as a metaphor or a backdrop.
But I would say the female gaze, because porn is really the essence of male gaze. Heterosexual porn, 99.99%, is made for the male viewer, made from a male perspective. And that’s the sexual education for people all over the world. So we all get to learn about sex from a male perspective. And that’s why I really wanted to go into the epicenter of that, and from that position, turn the camera around the other way, both figuratively but also metaphorically, and tell the other story. What do we not get to see in the porn film? What is the other point of view? And show images that people hadn’t seen before.
Right. I mean, I could tell just from the people in it, and the types of extras and actors that you cast that you’d done quite a lot of research in that world. Can you tell me about that process?
I came there the first time in 2014, and the good thing was I had already done a short film called Pleasure, where my intention had been to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes. Like kind of a behind-the-scenes on a porn shoot, but at the time I had never been on a porn shoot. I tried to do it as authentic as possible, but of course it was also made out of just assumptions or prejudice. But I could send that as showing that it’s my intention, that it had a very… not trying to…
Yeah, no. So then that helped a lot for people to open up, and showed them that I was very genuine and honest, I really want to learn. But then also, I spent so much time there and after a while people got more used to having me around and I became part of the community.
So what were you doing? You were just hanging around on sets ?
Yeah. The first step was to do regular interviews, and then each time I met someone, like Mark Spiegler, for example, was one of the first people that I met. But I asked them, do you know anyone else that you think that I could talk to, or that could share some information? And then it very quickly just led me to meeting new people. It took me a week before I was on my first porn set, and then I became friends with the team, and asked them when are you shooting next? And then after a while people started getting used to having me around, and then I also started to audition and try people for different roles. Quite early I knew that I wanted to have actual porn people in the film. A little bit of industry people. I never thought that it would be only industry people [except for star, Sofia Kappel, who plays Bella], that was just how it turned out. I thought that I would have a mix of professional actors and porn people, but I’m really glad that this is how it happened.
It sort of slowly came together. In the beginning, I didn’t know exactly the whole beginning, middle, and end, I was just picking up things that I found interesting and developed a story from there. But I mean now, in a way, the story is about what’s happening if someone from Sweden was coming into the porn industry and slowly step-by-step getting to know it, and that is also the journey that I went through.
When you were coming into this world, I assume it’s all kind of new, but were there any particular moments that stand out in terms of culture clash?
Yeah, there were a lot of those things. I mean, I just, I remember the first time being on a porn set and the male performer, he just like came up to me with his dick in his hand. With the other one just saying hi to me. And I just… I was blushing so much, I didn’t know where to look, and I was just freaking out. And they had so much fun to see me with that type of stuff, seeing how uncomfortable I was. It wasn’t like in a negative way, just blushing.
But there’s been several shifts I had in my thinking. One was when I was on this porn set and they were doing something that was two big black guys, tiny teenage white girl, schoolgirl outfit, and they were twice her age. And she got some instructions like, “you’re afraid of these big black cocks coming to molest you.” And I was sitting there with my little notebook, writing down how problematic they all are, and then the director turned and looked at me and said, “What is wrong with you people? Why are you making us do this shit? Why is this what you want to see?”
And that was a totally new perspective. Like, okay, so they think that what they’re doing, I’m the reason. I’m the one who’s guilty or responsible for this content. Because I was sitting there thinking this is on them. That was so interesting for me to just understand, oh, they think that we are the problem, or the perverts, or whatever you want to call it. And then so many people in the industry, they think that the mainstream people, as they call us, that we are crazy perverts because they’re just giving us what we want. That was a very important perspective shift.
So I know that you switched distributors, and I think that was over the other one [A24] wanting you to cut some more explicit material. Why was it important for you to leave that stuff in and what did they want you to take out?
I mean, I can’t really comment on anything specific, and I think it’s better also to maybe ask them, because I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know everything about all the details, but this is my film. This is the story that I wanted to tell. That’s always been very important for me.
It feels like there’s this constant conflict with porn depictions, whether people see porn as retrograde or whether they see it as progressive, whether they see it as sexist,or whether they see it as feminist. Does that make it hard for you to just be observational in your storytelling?
I wouldn’t say that it makes it hard for me. I think it’s the opposite. It makes it interesting for me, that whole thing challenging and always trying to find new perspectives, or how can I add other layers too. That’s also why I’m so intrigued by this because there are so many different nuances. And also there are so many different types of porn. I’ve been engaged in the porn debate for 20 years, and I think it’s just really interesting to understand how people can view things so differently. I think it’s a very interesting discussion. To me, the most important thing is that we need to get more images from a female perspective. It is a huge problem that so much of what we see, and especially in porn, is shot from a male perspective, and that that’s the porn everyone is watching. It’s the sexual education for most people, so I think that also makes us project the male gaze in places where it doesn’t belong. As an artist, I think I see myself a little bit as a researcher rather than someone finding the definite answer, but I’m always trying to challenge and push and dig further.
Porn is so ubiquitous, and sort of universally viewed, and yet it still seems like the people that make it and star in it are still ostracized in weird ways. Did you-
Sorry, what does that word mean?
Like they’re sort of pushed outside mainstream society in weird little ways. Were you surprised by any ways that mainstream society sort of tries to push them away, or keep them out of certain normal mainstream spaces?
Yeah. And I mean, I’m so provoked by that– I would say that it’s a lot about projecting your own shame or guilt onto the people in porn. And also blaming the people, the worker, who are just producing the stuff that you are searching for. They are giving their bodies and their work for your satisfication, but then you look down on them and blame them. And yeah, a lot of the porn, it is very problematic. It’s about taboo. It’s sexist and racist, but that is something that we have to deal with on a societal level. And the thing is also with the film, the negative things that happens to Bella, the fact that she is having sex on camera, that’s not what’s causing the problems. It’s misuse of power, it’s the power structures that exist in any industry.
I mean, do you see the way that we treat porn performers as similar to the way we treat workers in general?
What do you mean workers in general? No, I don’t think it’s like workers in general, but also how do we treat workers in general? I don’t completely understand the question.
Like we want their labor, but not them as people necessarily. We want the products of the things they do, but not be-
Yeah. I mean, if you talk about, for example, someone in a factory in a third world country, but I think that’s one thing, but what we’re doing with porn, it’s a little bit like walking past someone taking care of your garbage and saying, “Oh, you stink.” Because they’re dealing with your garbage. So then we’ll push them away and say that they are the problem.
[I think it’s a little revealing, a Swede not initially understanding “workers” as my sort of American shorthand for exploited workers here].
‘Pleasure’ opens in theaters in New York and LA May 13th, before expanding wider May 20th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.