One of the film’s real-life porn directors, Aiden Starr, gives Bella the transcendent, affirming, sex-positive experience she came to L.A. to find. The rest of them range from sleazy but harmless to manipulative and predatory, culminating in a disturbing scene where Bella’s consent is repeatedly violated on a “rough sex” shoot. Kappel’s performance in these moments is courageous: It takes bravery for any actor to throw themselves into an edgy and physically demanding role like this one, let alone an unseasoned one like Kappel. Her willingness to push through the fear shows not only her commitment to her craft, but also the unconditional trust between Thyberg and her star.
“Pleasure” doesn’t try to justify Bella’s choices, and it doesn’t blame them on a traumatic past or daddy issues. She comes from a stable family, and she’s only stuck in L.A. because she lied to her parents about an “internship” in California. As a character, her motivations are simple, but inscrutable: She isn’t particularly driven by money, and while she likes attention, she could take or leave the fame. Her drive is to simply be the best, a very American mindset that ultimately eludes this very European film.
One warts-and-all fact that comes across clearly in “Pleasure” is the structural racism built into porn. Early on, Bella’s manager Bear, played by Black porn performer Chris Cock, explains that he’s “more of a fetish” than a person. And on a checklist Bella fills out before a shoot, “interracial” is at the bottom, the most taboo act a porn actor can perform—more radical, even, than double anal penetration. The theme of “extreme” sex recurs throughout “Pleasure,” leading to one of its more opinionated feminist statements: The pursuit of extremity for extremity’s sake in this film feels legitimately dangerous, a nightmare spiral of degradation where ambitious young women are forced to choose between personal boundaries and professional success.