Ninja Thyberg’s feature directorial debut is also the most unforgettable movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
By Sean Blanford
“Are you here for business or pleasure”? Those are the words spoken by a US Customs Agent to Jessica (Sofia Kappel) as she steps into the country from Sweden with aspirations of becoming America’s next big porn actress. That is not how we are greeted into this film, instead only hearing the sounds that you would expect to find watching the latest video that hit PornHub. With each sound of thrusting and jerking, we, the audience, believe we know the type of film we will be watching. However, much like Jessica’s transformation into Bella Cherry, writer/director Ninja Thyberg subverts your expectations, creating one of the most unforgettable films to come out of this year’s festival.
Bella’s journey begins as a naïve newcomer, unsure of what to do with her first scene. Her confidence grows as she is shifted into awkward positions by the director and taken care of by those around her, ending the video with an Instagram post of her accomplishments before cleaning herself off. Our little star is born, but small-time gigs are not what she is here to do. At her first big party, she meets the latest in the line of Spiegler Girls, those at the top of the industry who accept any job they are given and are the VIPs of any event they attend. That is what Bella wants to be, and so begins her ascent into the industry, but what she goes through is not what she expects.
The entire film hinges on star Sofia Kappel’s performance, and for this to be her first role in a feature film is nothing short of groundbreaking. You see that she is made taken care of by those she surrounds herself with, but when the camera’s roll for whatever scene Bella is in, you’re left questioning at what cost she will finally be content. One particular scene is challenging to consume, and even though I knew what I was watching wasn’t happening in real life and that this was just a movie, it was hard not to think that something like this could and is.
This brings to mind the most significant difficulty with Pleasure: if you as an audience member loves this film as much as this reviewer did, how would you go about recommending it to someone. A small independent film such as this thrives on buzz and word of mouth, and to try and sell someone on this film. You would want to warn them about some of the more extreme events in the movie and have them decide if it’s right for them. But how is that different than any other film that has what could even be viewed as questionable subject matter? If someone asks you about it and the first thing they ask is, “is it anything like Boogie Nights,” you can kindly retort with “kind of, but how do you feel about erect penises directly in your face and double anal”? Then the conversation can go from there.
The skill and care of how Ninja Thyberg brings Bella’s story to us is the difference between this being a thoughtful look into a person’s life and aspirations rather than exploitative. Pleasure is a film eight years in the making, starting as the short film that won the Canal+ Award at the 2013 Cannes Film festival to the feature that premiered at Sundance. It is meant to be uncomfortable, but you will be satisfied if you make it to the end.
Pleasure made its world premiere as an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 31st. Photo credited to The Sundance Institute.