Not for the faint-hearted, Ninja Thyberg’s first film Pleasure is a raw and daring exploration of the porn industry, following Bella (played by new actress Sofia Kappel) as she arrives in LA from her home in Sweden with ambitions to become the next big porn star.
What unfolds is the culmination of Thyberg’s own experience with sex and porn, years of research, time spent in the field with real adult industry actors and film makers – many of whom feature in the film – and themes of gender roles, consent, violence, and power. We see many different sides of the adult film industry, some very dark, some very funny – all beautifully shot through purposeful angles, colours, and striking make-up and costume design.
The film was a breakout success at Sundance Film Festival 2021, and has won awards at the Guldbagge Awards 2022 – Sofia Kappel picking up an award for best actress. It’s certainly a provocative film in many ways, and we spoke to Ninja about the making of her captivating carnal feature.
Nordic Watchlist: Have you been pleased with the reaction that you’ve received for the film and was the reaction that you were looking for?
Ninja Thyberg: Yeah, of course, but then I did not know what type of reaction I would get. I was really, really curious how people might react and I expected to get much more criticism than I have, as I expected the film to provoke people more than anything.
I was ready for the anti-porn people to hate on it as much as those that are pro-porn, then you’ve got the feminists and the misogynists.
I was ready for the anti-porn people to hate on it as much as those that a pro-porn, then you’ve got the feminists and the misogynists. I thought that everyone would come after me.
However, it feels like it’s been the other way around. Of course not everyone is going to love it, but it’s been very fascinating to see how people are picking up on the things that they support and like about the film.
To be honest, I’ve made the film mostly for women, but I really hope that men are going to like it and hopefully I’m going to be able to reach out to men as well. The main focus has been women because it is so much from the female perspective and that’s my standpoint of communicating with women, about our experiences being a woman and how to deal with patriarchy.
To be honest, I’ve made the film mostly for women
I’m very pleasantly surprised by how many male fans the film has achieved, and not in a creepy way, though of course there’s the creeps out there too, but so many men have come up to me after screening or written to me about how affected they have been about the film and how important they think the film is and how much they’ve started reflecting on themselves.
It gives me a lot of hope.
Nordic Watchlist: One thing about the film that’s incredible is Sophia Kappel’s performance, a debut role that comes across as so authentic. Were you expecting the kind of reception she has received? She’s become quite a superstar.
Ninja Thyberg: Yeah, she has, and she also went and won the Swedish Academy for Best Actress (Guldbagge Award)!
At the very beginning I don’t know if I would have even dared to foresee this outcome for her. The things that I’ve put her through for this film have been tough and challenging – she’s been very onboard with everything – always communicating and looking after her boundaries.
It goes without saying that we always tried to protect her and never cross her boundaries, she had never acted before and she was so young doing this demanding role. She also worked so hard, being from Sweden, we have like eight hours that you can work and you are not allowed to work longer than eight hour per day. On set we were working 14 hours a day and you have to remember that she is in every scene.
It goes without saying that we always tried to protect her and never cross her boundaries, she had never acted before and she was so young doing this demanding role.
I had always felt this almost like, not necessarily guilt, but this huge responsibility towards her and with what I put her through.
And to see that it has really paid off and how proud she is – that’s a huge relief for me.
Nordic Watchlist: What did you do to build her trust in you, before and during filming? Were there particular things that you would spend a lot of time with her talking through?
Ninja Thyberg: Definitely. When it came it to her first audition I had decided to attend it as we had a friend in common, so I was there and we went through the audition. Afterwards we talked and I explained why I wanted to make the film and the perspective I wanted to come from – it just seemed to resonate with her.
It was important to make this authentic – to make it feel that this was from a 19 year old girl’s perspective in a lot of ways.
She seemed really smart and was onboard with everything so then I wanted to involve her as much as possible. We read the script together and I gave her notes that we discussed and she would come up with suggestions for her character. It was important to make this authentic – to make it feel that this was from a 19 year old girl’s perspective in a lot of ways.
We went to LA together and did research, such as visiting porn sets and meeting people in the industry, and then when we auditioned people for the roles, she was always there and did the scenes with everyone so we could find people that she was comfortable working with. If she didn’t like someone, they did not get the part.
Further to that we lived together too and so we really developed this partnership in a way where she was so involved in the creative process – I think that was crucial for me, to have been able to ask all of those things of her, than if it was just someone doing a job for me.
At that point she felt it was her film as well.
We went to LA together and did research, such as visiting porn sets and meeting people in the industry
There is one particular scene that involves her being abused and she found this scene very important to her and she wanted me to push her. I felt also that I had a responsibility towards her to get the best performance out of her and not limit myself because I felt uncomfortable coaching her.
And so it was essential to have us really communicate with each other and trust one another. She always had the whole team around her too so it wasn’t just me protecting her.
Nordic Watchlist: I love the aesthetic of the film, what kind of cameras and effects were you using?
Ninja Thyberg: It was important for me to have a lens where you really felt the texture – I didn’t want to have this glossiness so that the skin is like getting more even or softer. I wanted you to be able to see the natural skin, see it get red, or sweaty – so the lighting was a priority. And when she has make up on as a character, it’s going to be really obvious and stand out.
I wanted to capture all of that, as well as pick up the sounds of the physical body, and for the audience to feel the physical reactions.
I wanted you to be able to see the natural skin, see it get red, or sweaty – so the lighting was a priority.
That way it should feel like your own body while watching it, because it is so much about that, the body work, and the reality – I wanted it to be about real bodies and not movie bodies.
Nordic Watchlist: Tell us about the use of colours and camera angles?
Ninja Thyberg: We wanted to add a lot of bright colours in it. Then alongside that was to create these camera angles which we worked really carefully on because it was such an important part of the film, deconstructing the male gaze.
So each frame was analysed very carefully. For example, what type of power does it produce? Or how do we place the camera and frame it in a way that makes me connect to her? When are we looking at her as an abject and when is she a person?
I spent so much time – five years – doing my research in the porn industry and I had always had my own camera with me. There were many times I was able to take photos or video for research purposes. So for many years I developed my own vision, like you are really there.
I spent so much time – five years – doing my research in the porn industry and I had always had my own camera with me.
Then I would focus on the rooms and the bodies around the shot and by doing that it was like I was developing my own language through the way I was using the camera and looking at this world.
So when I finally shot the film it felt very natural to be able to depict certain things because I felt I had felt them before and I had so much through a camera lens.
Alex @ Nordic Watchlist: Ninja Thyberg’s film has many layers to unravel, and multiple watches will make you aware of other elements going on in the film you might have missed – even some humour you might not have picked up on previously. The camera angles in particular are fascinating in some moments and clearly Ninja’s experience of being on set in the porn industry for such a length of time really did help her develop her own eye to deliver to us as an audience.
At times Pleasure is a gruelling watch, moments that will infuriate you, upset you, shock you, and yet there are moments of humour and colour that lighten these heavy scenes.
It will linger with us for days after watching it and if it does the same for you then Ninja Thyberg’s objective has certainly been achieved.
Pleasure is on MUBI from 17th June – don’t miss it!
Interview by Alex Minnis