For Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Insignificance, British artist David Hockney was commissioned to create a new portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Using collage and inspired by Monroe’s Playboy cover, he made an image of Teresa Russell as Monroe, lying on a wrinkled pink sheet. She looks at us and away from us, her body contorting in different directions. Cubist and postmodern in construction, it captures not only the fracturing impact of fame on the body, but also the paradoxical need for a sex symbol to be wanted and unwanted — willing and unwilling.
Moving from Monroe’s first Playboy cover to the endless scroll of porn streaming sites brings us Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure. The new film follows a young Swedish blonde, Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel), who heads to Los Angeles to become a porn star. Bella, who bears a passing resemblance to Monroe — at least in that they’re both cherry-lipped blondes — twists her body to be seen from all possible angles all at once, her feet, hips, and open mouth turned toward a wanting camera. Structured almost like an Alice in Wonderland fantasy of highs and humiliations, Pleasure delves into the work and sacrifices needed to “make it” in California’s dreamland, incorporating many real-life porn performers and other creatives into its cast.
For all the salacious possibilities of the premise, Thyberg’s focus is the work involved in pornography. Bella’s motivations are obscure, save a performative declaration that she’s in the business because she “loves cock.” Much like Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde, another work that plays with the image of Marilyn Monroe, the story eschews internal monologue in favor of painstaking depiction of the mundane, sometimes distasteful or even horrific conditions of work in a world where one’s body is both tool and object.
In many ways, Pleasure adopts a familiar coming-of-age narrative of porn features from the 1970s, like Deep Throat or The Opening of Misty Beethoven, in which young women have an erotic awakening and go on a journey through the highs and lows of sexuality. Thyberg essentially turns this on its head by foregrounding questions of labor and industry conditions over self-discovery. It explores the complexity of women’s sexual power as a tool within a capitalist system, where desire can be made financially, rather than merely spiritually, empowering. It dispels a male fantasy central to so much pornography, which presents female performers as insatiable vixens rather than complex human beings.
Bella’s life is far from glamorous, and most of her work involves serious compromises in consent. Women in particular frequently put aside their actual desires for the sake of a scene. The movie punctures the fantasy of the nymphomaniac, painting Bella as a performer, promoter, and businessperson all at once. We watch as she does her own makeup and shows up for go-sees where she outlines her expectations and takes photos for prospective studios.
Unlike her colleague Joy (Zelda Morisson), at first Bella fails to understand that the performance begins here. It’s not enough to be hot and willing; she has to sell herself. Later, Joy has to do a scene with a male performer whom she doesn’t get along with. Bella reminds her, “It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to have bad days at work.” As they perform a humiliation scene, Joy is increasingly agitated and accuses the man of purposefully hurting her. While pretending to take the accusations seriously, everyone — including Bella — downplays her concerns, and Joy is painted as “difficult.”
But reading Pleasure as some kind of cautionary tale eschews its complexities. A recurring issue the film raises is the need for protections for workers within marginalized industries. Fundamentally, many of the observations about work could just as easily be applied to the mainstream American movie machine, within which sexual harassment and assault have been treated more like a social sickness rather than a labor issue. The porn business is understandably apprehensive of outside scrutiny, as regulators often use the guise of “concern” to try to shut them down entirely. If your takeaway from this film is that porn simply needs to go away, then you only want to further endanger sex workers.
When Pleasure first screened for industry members in July 2021, there was outrage, as many performers featured in the film felt like they’d been “duped” into participating in anti-porn agitprop. Journalist Gustavo Turner followed up this report with an interview with one of the film’s co-stars, Evelyn Clair. She defended the film, especially its emphasis on the need to educate new performers about how things work and the industry on how to run ethical sets.
The first episode of Louis Theroux’s lackluster recent docuseries Forbidden America is devoted to “Porn’s Me Too,” delving into a business facing a reckoning. Performers have been turning away from both studios and less-regulated independent productions, favoring sites like OnlyFans, where they can implement their own safety guidelines and profit more directly and fully from their work. But this business model of sex work is fragile and tenuous, subject to the whims of legislation and the difficulties in building up a fanbase without the support of an established studio or agent.
Pleasure should not be taken as an opportunity to condemn an entire field, but a chance to investigate what it means to be a worker within an industry with a significant imbalance of power. What does it mean when your body is the landscape for society’s desires, and how do you ensure it remains your own?
Pleasure opens in select theaters May 13.
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