Early on in Pleasure, Ninja Thyberg’s searing debut feature about the L.A. porn industry, aspiring performer Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) is awkwardly perched on a couch as her co-star (adult film actor John Strong, playing himself) films her. It’s Bella’s very first professional porn shoot after leaving Sweden for California with the ambition of becoming the next adult film superstar. Despite that lofty goal, the 19-year-old is more nervous than she wants to let on. Just minutes before, she nearly backed out of the whole thing. Now, the camera lens is squarely on her.
“I want you to look at the camera, always,” Strong says. “Don’t look at me, look at the camera. Because you’re looking at the guy at home.”
The scene is a traditional heterosexual porn set-up, meant to create the illusion for male viewers that they are in the scene, face-to-face with the women in the frame. But in Pleasure, Thyberg isn’t playing that game; the director’s camera is omniscient, weaving around the set to capture the scene from all angles. We initially see Bella through the camera’s viewfinder, before looping around to her perspective, and landing on her point of view: a very erect penis. Then, off we go again, to a wide-shot that shows not just the cast but also the porn director and crew, all usually absent from the frame.
“The woman in a traditional heterosexual porn film is always the main object,” Thyberg tells Marie Claire in a Zoom interview ahead of Pleasure’s May 13 limited theatrical release. “Everything is arranged for the male perspective. It’s never about her.”
The opposite is true in Pleasure, which follows Bella on her disturbing and often brutal journey to become the next big porn star—whatever the cost. That means showing the many ways in which men control the business, but also how easily women can end up policing each other in this zero-sum game. Still, while Pleasure doesn’t shy away from explicit subject matter, some of its most emotionally satisfying moments are nudity-free. The funny intimacy of two women sharing a bathroom; a dog refusing to sit still while his owner films a live cam reel; a raucous pizza party after work—these scenes build a nuanced world inhabited by living, breathing people.
In her very first role, 24-year-old Kappel delivers a fearless performance alongside professional porn actors including Chris Cock, Evelyn Claire, Dana DeArmond, and Reuvika Reustle, who stands out as Bella’s unapologetically raunchy friend Joy.
Ahead, Thyberg tells Marie Claire how she created a safe environment on set and the porn stereotypes she set out to challenge.
Marie Claire: Pleasure premiered as a short film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and you later expanded it into a feature. What first drew you to the subject of the porn industry?
Ninja Thyberg: "I started out as a very angry anti-porn activist when I was 16 after my boyfriend showed me a porn film for the first time. At that point, I had a very black-and-white view on things. All I saw was a representation of exploiting women, objectification, dehumanization. After a few years, I started to get more nuanced. There are other types of porn, and I became interested in feminist pornography. I studied gender studies at university and wrote a thesis [about different] styles of pornography, and I was also in film school. That’s when I got the idea to make the short. I already knew I wanted to make a longer version, but I wasn’t in a place in my career where that felt possible.... The short film is very different because when I did that, I had only studied porn from a distance from Sweden. I only had theoretical ideas about it. But I really felt that for the feature [film], I had to do it all over again properly and get to know the world for real."
MC: Why did you feel it was important to spend time in that world?
NT: "I felt like everything I knew about it was from a very limited point of view, and I felt like none of the [existing] portrayals about the porn industry [were] a serious attempt to really understand [it], rather than do something spectacular or stigmatize. Also in interviews about the short, I said I wanted to portray the real people behind the porn stereotypes, which was true, but I also felt like a hypocrite. I felt like at any point someone actually working in porn could call me out.
"[At the time I was] saying, ‘I want to do something honest and authentic,’ but [I was] just doing what everyone else is doing and making assumptions about something I don’t know. So, I decided, ‘I’m going to go there, and I’m going to let what I find lead me to the story.’ I wanted to be challenged.
"I went to L.A. in 2014, and I had an appointment with [porn talent agent] Mark Spiegler [who also stars in the film], and some other people who I reached out to. It took me five years to do the research properly, [including living in a model house for a short time to get close to the character]."
MC: Did you find you had a lot of preconceived notions or judgments about porn? How did your perspective evolve?
NT: "Yes, definitely. When I went [to L.A.] the first time, my ambition was to make a film about the porn industry. I wanted to show it and talk about it and probably criticize it somehow.
"In the beginning, I wrote tons of stuff in my notes about the ‘weird’ stuff that was happening. But the more time I spent there, the more it became normal to me, and the more I started to feel like one of ‘them’ and stopped looking at them as the ‘other.’.. Instead of looking at the people in porn, I started looking at the people back home, and the film became about how I want to say something about our society. I’m just using the porn world as an allegory or a backdrop. I’m not that interested anymore in the porn industry in itself. To me, the film is about certain types of power structures and being a woman in a male-dominated world, different classes of society, and racism."
MC: Did that inform how you decided to shoot the porn scenes? I noticed the perspective often shifts between showing the action as it would appear in an actual porn film, and what Bella sees as the performer.
NT: "I wanted to use a female gaze to challenge the male gaze. That was always the intention: How do I tell this from her point of view? In filmmaking, the camera is everything. Where you point the camera is what perspective you’re showing. You’re choosing who the audience is going to identify with. That was something I was super specific about. Sometimes, it’s literally reversing the camera and looking at the porn camera. I wanted this film to show images that audiences haven’t seen before—what is going on outside of the traditional porn frame. "
MC: Can you give an example?
NT: "In one scene, [all] Bella sees is [the guy’s] feet. The woman in a traditional heterosexual porn film is always the main object. She’s always in the center of the frame. You almost never see the men—it’s just a penis. You see everything that is happening as if you are the guy having sex with the woman. You never [reverse] the camera—I’ve looked for it, and I can count on my 10 fingers how many films I’ve seen that turned the camera around. Everything is arranged for the male perspective. It’s never about her."
MC: This was Sofia Kappel’s first acting role. How did you find her?
NT: "It took me one and a half years! We searched all over Sweden and were in contact with thousands of girls. Everyone said I was chasing a ghost, that I had invented this person in my head that didn’t exist, and that’s why I would never be satisfied… Most people met with the casting director first and then me on the callback. But with [Kappel], since we had a common friend, and she had never auditioned, I decided to be there.
"She had exactly the type of energy and attitude. She’s very young but also cool and confident and strong, someone you feel has sharpness and intelligence. It was important to me for the audience to be able to trust her. I had no idea if she could act, but then she was this super raw talent. Finding her is one of the best things that happened to me. She’s not just in front of the camera. She’s been so influential on the character and also knew exactly why it was important to do the scenes we did. We were doing it together rather than me giving her instructions and telling her what to do."
MC: Intimacy coordinators have become more and more common on American sets. Did you use one? If not, how did you create a safe environment on set?
NT: "We didn’t have an intimacy coordinator because they didn’t really exist at that time–we shot all the sex scenes in 2018. There were a lot of women around [Kappel], and she had her best friend come in from Stockholm. I had my best friend who’s also a director [there]—and now she’s an intimacy coordinator—and [I made sure] Sofia always had a big support system around her.
"We had conversations about how to create an atmosphere where she felt like she could be really clear about her boundaries. She was part of the whole auditioning process, so she got to meet everyone beforehand, and if there was someone she wasn’t comfortable with or didn’t like, they didn’t get the part.
"Especially with the sex scenes, it was so good to have professional [porn actors on set] who are used to dealing with this. I think if they had been regular actors it would have been weird because they would have been uncomfortable. But they were so relaxed and helpful, and used to someone [like Kappel] doing something for the first time."
MC: There was some debate about what cut of the film would make it into theaters. Why was it important for you to show the uncensored version?
NT: "This is the film I wanted to make."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Anne Cohen is a culture and film writer living in New York City and is currently a senior entertainment writer at Netflix’s Tudum. Her bylines appear in Refinery29, Bustle, and Variety.
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