If you had to say what the biggest difference is between the porn industry of the 1970s and the porn industry of today, you’d probably start with the obvious and overwhelming fact that people used to watch porn in grungy movie theaters and now access it on the Internet. You might talk about how even though the porn industry is still driven by a star system, with brand names who treat themselves like multi-media commodities, the larger cosmos of porn has never been more squalidly democratized, with porn festering more than ever in a grimy gray zone between “professional” and “amateur” — between those who do it for a living and those who dip into it for stray cash, desperate circumstances, or simply for kicks.
Yet beyond all that, the real paradigm shift in porn — it’s one that underlies a spiritual shift in the culture — is how extreme so much of it has become. Simply put: In porn, extreme is the new normal. I’m not just talking about the rise of fetish porn, the prominence of B&D and other “categories” that were once relegated to the sidelines. I’m talking about the “rough” vibe that now courses through so much online pornography, and how it has turned porn into an increasingly dark arena for acting out a kind of ritualized, eroticized aggression. Porn used to depict, more or less, what was known as vanilla sex. Now, to put it bluntly, more and more of it is about hate-fucking.
I make a point of this only because that’s the world that Ninja Thyberg has made a movie about with “Pleasure,” a drama set in the L.A. porn industry that premiered last night at Sundance. The movie takes an intentionally stark, disturbingly authentic plunge into what the porn world has become. Most of the actors who are in it come out of the adult-film business, and Thyberg, who is Swedish (this is her first feature), researched the film by immersing herself in the porn scene. She has said that most of the incidents we see in the movie are based on things she witnessed.
That’s easy to believe, since “Pleasure” has the clinical look and feel of a documentary pegged to the frame of a fictionalized story. It’s a coldly artful and explicit piece of anthropological voyeurism, and its subject is what pornography has become — what it is, what it’s selling, why the people who perform in it are drawn to it, what it does for them, what it does to them, and what it’s doing to all of us. Porn, when it’s just a click away, can no longer be called underground, yet the emotions of porn, which increasingly fuse lust and brutality, adoration and degradation, are something that as a society we still tend to bury. A movie like “Pleasure” jerks the skeevy, compulsive porn world out of the closet in a way that few movies have. That’s a brave thing to, and what makes it work is that Ninja Thyberg, revealing the instincts of a true filmmaker, uses her characters to discover the things she’s telling us.
The heroine, Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), is from Sweden and is only 19, but she carries herself like a jaded, nose-ringed cosmopolitan citizen of the global hedonist marketplace. When we first see her, she’s going through customs at the L.A. airport. She has come to the U.S. to shoot her first porn video, for which she’s going to be paid $900, but what she’s really arrived for is to launch her career — to climb the ladder of the L.A. porn business. She’s got an agent, a stage name (Bella Cherry), and 25 tattoos, and she’s arranged to live in a “model house” with three porn-starlet roommates, one of whom, the downscale and troubled Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), becomes her buddy.
What has drawn Linnéa to porn? Early on she makes an edgy joke, pretending that she was abused by her father, and it’s a key moment. While there’s no question that abusive backgrounds have been common in the porn world, this is the film’s way of telling us that that perception is too easily relied upon, by too many upstanding people, to explain away the unruly allure of porn. Linnéa’s background is never totally filled in (a phone conversation with her mother suggests that she comes from a nice and relatively untroubled home), but as “Pleasure” presents it, her attraction to the porn world is about several things at once: her desire to perform on camera, her ambition to be a star, and — yes — her obsession with sex that pushes the boundaries.
The film is quite raw, full of casual shots of erections (and more), but except for an early scene of Linnéa shaving herself in the shower, there isn’t a single image of female genitalia. That’s Thyberg’s way of undercutting the male gaze, of keeping the film hewed to Linnéa’s point-of-view. On the porn sets, she’s confronted by men who are paid to act, to one degree or another, like angry horndog masters (the degrees get raised as the film goes on). Yet off camera most of them are polite and professional, and the movie uses that dichotomy to capture the paradox of what professional porn is now about. On the one hand, the industry in L.A. has more safeguards than ever. The women are protected by detailed contracts, by agents who talk like Hollywood players, and by getting to perform in rigorously monitored settings; before the video cameras roll, everything is agreed upon.
Yet with all those controls in place, it’s still the nature of the business that the performers are improvising — letting out their ids, tapping their inner sexual beings. And what they’re now encouraged to channel is a sadomasochism of the spirit. The women are in the position of being paid to go “insane,” to let out their inner freak of debasement. And what Linnéa discovers is that the lower she goes, the higher she’ll rise. The movie is structured like a descent into the nine circles of porn perversion, with Linnéa pushing herself to the limit until she emerges…on top.
Sofia Kappel has never acted in a movie before (she’s one of the few cast members who’s not from the porn industry), but beneath her radiance she’s got a quality of mystery that holds the camera. Her Linnéa is a young woman who knows herself and doesn’t; a natural-born exhibitionist in casual touch with the dark side of desire; and a naïf who knows how to work a room. She and her model-house cohort are constantly selling themselves: parading photos on social media, making impromptu cell-phone videos of things like banana fellatio that they can edit into clips for cash, and working the parade of men who rule the porn-world patriarchy — many of them shaven-headed and middle-aged, a surprising number with light European accents. They work the cameras and make the deals.
The most fascinating of them is a real-life figure: the celebrity porn-star agent Mark Spiegler, playing himself. Linnéa’s dream is to become a “Spiegler girl,” and Spiegler, with his seen-it-all leer, comes on like a fusion of Louis B. Mayer and Jabba the Hutt. He treats his girls well, and protects them, insisting on no drama — which sounds upfront and professional. So why do we feel, as the film goes on, like Linnéa is going to be making a deal with the devil?
Maybe because what “Pleasure” show us is that when a porn star, even a successful one, goes through the looking glass of desire and starts to spend her life on the other side of it, she may be in control of her destiny, but there are so many transactions she has to make — transactions of the body, of the soul, of hate disguised as lust — that she may end up losing sight of who she is. That’s the real demon of porn. It’s not that you’re exploited. It’s that you have to keep injecting yourself with the syringe of aggro erotic fever until it blots out everything else.