New in Town
By Philippa Snow

Ninja Thyberg, Sweden/Netherlands/France, NEON

“Business or pleasure?”, a petite and perky blonde is asked at airport customs, in the first scene of Ninja Thyberg’s new film about the porn industry. It’s a funny, caustic opener for a movie that defies its title: Pleasure, which has struggled to achieve release since its Sundance debut in 2021 due to its thoroughly graphic nature, is all business, and its forthright sexual scenes are not technically pornographic in the sense that nobody entirely sane would find them pleasurable to masturbate to. Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a 19-year-old from Sweden, has arrived in Los Angeles with the goal of making it in two distinct but overlapping senses of the phrase; her face, which has a babyish, Chloë Grace Moretz quality that suggests she might be perfect casting for an adult spoof of Clouds of Sils Maria, betrays no hint of anything but boredom when she answers “pleasure.”

Thyberg’s film appears to be as disinterested in exploring its principal character’s motivations as she is in expressing them to her peers, her co-stars, or her management. Linnéa is a gorgeous blank, physically interchangeable with hundreds of her bare and barely legal equivalents, and opaque enough that anybody watching her might find it easy to convince themselves that she is doing what she does for fun. “Like, seriously, my dad raped me when I was young,” she tells her minder when he asks why she’s in L.A. making porn, before laughing and suggesting that she’s actually out there because Swedes “just suck.” Her unwillingness to offer up a serious response reminded me of an essay by the brilliant writer and adult performer Lorelei Lee, in which they argue that doing sex work is “as good and as terrible as other, lower-wage work.” “I knew the work was not how anti-sex-work feminists described it,” Lee suggests. “I did sex work for the same reason I had always done wage labor: because I needed the money.” The most provocative reason Thyberg could have given for Linnéa’s career, in other words, is the un-thrilling one almost everybody has for going to work: to pay the bills, to secure housing, and to live.

Renaming herself “Bella Cherry,” Linnéa throws herself immediately into performing, doing her first scene with a paunchy middle-aged man and then delightedly Instagramming a picture of her face covered in semen. She moves into an unpretty model home with a small band of other female porn stars, one of whom—a mouthy, thick-skinned firebrand named Joy—fast becomes her closest friend, though they will eventually, inevitably become professional rivals. Men who work with Linnéa, whether co-stars or directors, often employ the same wheedling brand of faux-feminist coaxing to convince her to go through with acts she might otherwise not. “I feel like that’s all just part of stage fright, and so you just have to overcome it and push past it,” her first director informs her when she’s struggling to do the scene, adding airily but entirely unconvincingly, “No pressure.”

About halfway through the film, emboldened by an experience doing a rough scene with a female, feminist porn auteur, she agrees to do a gangbang she imagines will be similarly choreographed; instead, it turns into a situation she will later describe as a rape, not quite nonconsensual but not fully consensual, either. The first time she begs off, eyeliner dripping down her cheeks, she is met with coos and sweetness. “Are you okay, honey?” one performer asks. “It’s just a show, and you’re a tough girl, right?” “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” another adds. “You want to finish, don’t you?” When Linnéa does not, gentle encouragement turns swiftly to disgust: “You’re fucking with everyone else’s money,” the director snarls. “You think I’m going to pay for half a scene? Everything you just did was for nothing.” Linnéa, it would seem, is a honey and a tough girl and a rising star with agency right up until the moment her decisions start to cost her superiors money, at which point she reverts back to being a commodity.

Pleasure has very few antecedents as far as explicit films about the manufacture of pornography are concerned, but it does fit into a long line of movies about young women traveling to L.A. looking for fame, briefly ascending to stardom, and then being eaten alive by the industry. In this way, it is an intriguing blend of clever art-house edge and cinematic Chick tract, portraying our heroine’s experience in pornographic films as a classic rise and fall, and her willingness to hand over both her body and her soul as a devil’s bargain with the patriarchy. The image of a bright-eyed and hopeful starlet stepping off a Greyhound bus is an enduring cliché; if Linnéa does not have the innocence and Canadian politeness of Betty Elms—the would-be actress in Mulholland Drive who disembarks at LAX and exclaims, sweetly, “I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place”—she certainly ends up living out a similar nightmare, following Betty’s lead in taking out her fury on another woman by committing what amounts to borderline sexual assault. (Like Lynch’s Inland Empire, too, Pleasure is the tale of an aspiring star turned “woman in trouble,” and in places it suggests the film's moment where a terrified and terrifying Laura Dern exclaims: “I’m a whore! Where am I? I’m afraaaaaid.”) With the introduction of the icy and successful Ava, a high-ranking Spiegler girl with a delicate gothic look that recalls that of the adult performer Stoya, there are traces of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls, with its Sodom and Gomorrah attitude to sex work and its warring female leads, one blonde and one brunette. “Must be weird, not having someone cum on you,” somebody tells that movie’s sort-of-heroine Nomi Malone after she graduates from working at a low-rent strip club to performing at the Stardust. For Linnéa, having only one person ejaculating on her constitutes a slow day at the office, bringing new meaning to the old inquiry “working hard, or hardly working?”

Pleasure’s closest cousin may not be a film at all, but a TV series originally made for Channel Four, then aired by HBO. Adult Material, a four-part drama based on an original screenplay by the playwright Lucy Kirkwood, tells the story of an adult actress who performs under the pseudonym Jolene Dollar. Unlike Linnéa, she is an industry veteran, and at 33 she is considered to be reaching the tail-end of her career. As played by Hayley Squires, Jolene—whose real name is also Hayley—is a fully rounded character, gentle and pragmatic and maternal and, beneath it all, strong as steel. As in Pleasure, there are moments of high drama in Adult Material, and its A-plot is just as concerned with toxic male behavior in the workplace. (One character, a performer called Tom Pain who is eventually revealed to be a serial rapist, appears to be based at least in part on the now-disgraced pornographic actor James Deen.) Still, some of its sharpest moments are those in which Jolene’s work life is revealed to be as boring as most others, as when she offers a sympathetic ear to her male co-star as they gripe about planning permission and conservatory building while both naked from the waist down, or when she runs through a list of errands in her head in voiceover while being penetrated. When Jolene is called in to discuss her daughter’s bad behavior at the private high school she attends, she is quick to point out to the supercilious headmistress that her money, whether or not she has earned it on her knees, is just as good as other parents’, if not better. “Do you know what Paulie’s dad does for a living?” she asks, jutting out her chin. “He makes bullets. And you named a sports hall after him.”

Jolene, who has by her own admission fucked a great number of men, has never made the tools with which to kill one—that her career is seen as more shameful than that of a man who manufactures bullets is reflective of a tendency to think of porn as inherently evil or corrupting, when in fact it ought to be seen as a specialized, demanding job whose workers deserve to be treated with appropriate dignity and care. In the final scenes of Pleasure, Linnéa books a scene with Ava, and because she has been scarred by her experience with the gangbang—and because she perceives Ava as being too stuck-up, too perfect, too unflappable—she begins to penetrate her with a strap-on so forcefully and so mercilessly that the act tips over from erotic to aggressive. Linnéa treats her co-star as a prop to be destroyed, and like a good girl Ava acquiesces without comment. Once the shoot is over, the two women sit together in the back seat of a car en route to an event, and Linnéa tells Ava she is sorry. “What for?” Ava replies, her snow-white face as expressionless as a doll’s.

It is possible that Linnéa’s continual blankness has been meant to lead up to this revelatory moment, in which Thyberg implies that the secret to success as a female adult performer is being able to do what the writer Kate Zambreno calls, in her 2011 novel Green Girl, the “magic trick of going dead inside.” Green Girl is another story about a young woman who is new to the unpleasant, tiring world of work, although its central character, Ruth, sells perfume at a counter rather than performing sex on camera. The principle, though, is similar: in order to sell the product, which is actually the girl, some emptying-out is needed to allow for the insertion of a fantasy. Pleasure is certainly a smart film, and it looks fantastic—in addition to its porn sets being appropriately soulless and Los Angelean, there is a hyper-millennial, candy-coloured lacquer to its various party and promotional scenes, approximating a dead-split between a Glossier photo-shoot and a mid-noughties music video. In an increasingly puritanical cinematic landscape, it also ought to be commended for its explicit nature and its literal nakedness.

Thyberg’s screenplay, though, might have done a more thorough job of fleshing out Linnéa, who for all her suffering and tears remains in some respects almost as one-dimensional as a character in an actual pornographic film. Pleasure might have incorporated more of the kind of workplace banality that formed the bedrock of Adult Material, resisting the temptation to show pornography as a hellish and near-uniform site of masculine violence in favor of treating it like a profession that, like many others, requires women to butt up against sexism as a matter of course. Most days, after all, labor is neither a nightmare nor a dream—it is simply about getting by.