REVIEW: Pleasure/Violation (Sundance 2021)
Two takes on sexual subject-matters from women directors that are deliberately provocative, but with very different results.
After decades of men directing films featuring women who are nude and in various sexual scenes and scenarios, it is refreshing that we’re starting to see some examples of women featuring male nudity in their work. Of course the dynamics are very different, especially when there is social commentary involved and the women filmmakers are making points about sexual violence and exploitation. Pleasure and Violation are two deliberately provocative and shocking feature debuts that are designed for a strong reaction from the audience and they achieve this with varying degrees of success.
Pleasure is directed by Ninja Thyberg and stars Sofia Kappel as Bella – a young, fresh-faced new arrival in LA from Sweden, who wants to make it in the porn industry. She quickly secures an agent and moves in with a group of girls in the same industry. We then see her on a variety of film sets and how she is treated very differently, depending on who is behind the camera. Some directors are respectful and gentle with her, while others coerce her into doing things she doesn’t want to do.
Pleasure isn’t saying anything particularly new or groundbreaking about the porn industry and the only real interest comes from the fact that it’s a woman director bringing a much-needed female gaze and perspective to it. And of course, the equity of the nudity in the ‘porn’ scenes is something to be celebrated. A24 have acquired Pleasure and will apparently be releasing an uncensored version in order to circumnavigate the puritanical American censors. If erect penii are cut out of Pleasure for an R-rating, it defeats the entire purpose of the film.
Pleasure is certainly an improvement on Lucas Heyne’s Mope, starring Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, which was at Sundance in 2019. However, Kappel is not really a compelling enough actor to carry the film and there are gaps in the writing that would have lent more interest to the story. For example, we learn nothing about Bella’s backstory in Sweden, what made her want to make this move and why she is where she is. She blankly states several times that she “loves cock” or whatever, but the film is not convincing in showing us that she’s in this for her pleasure.
The most successful section of Pleasure, by far, is when we see Bella on the set of a porn film that has a woman director. The way she is treated and spoken to is a world away from what we’ve witnessed her go through on other sets, where she is practically treated as a piece of meat. This scene is juxtaposed with one where she has agreed to do a ‘rough scene’ with two men, where threatening her, choking her etc is all part of the ‘titillation.’ The other more positive part is a scene where Bella betrays her best friend on set and sells her out to further her career. However, The Neon Demon is already a searingly brilliant LA-set film about rivalries between models which demonstrates this better, because we feel like we know the characters. Abbey Lee can communicate more in one devastating facial expression than any of the actors do throughout the whole of Pleasure.
On the other hand, Violation is a well acted, directed and written film which is a worthy addition to the rape-revenge genre. I’ll get the criticisms out of the way first – there are four main characters – Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) and her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and their husbands – Caleb (Obi Abili) and Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Miriam, Greta and Caleb are all British and Dylan is, presumably, Canadian (he has a North American accent). The film was shot in Quebec and is apparently set there, but London is mentioned a few times (which must be where Miriam and Caleb are visiting from, but seem to be able to stay for an unlimited amount of time). But Miriam and Greta were apparently childhood friends with Dylan? Later, Miriam confronts a couple who are Russian/Eastern European, so it never gets any clearer. Anyway, this was all highly confusing and distracting during the film and I wish there was a more specific sense of setting and how all the characters fit into this place.
That setting is a lake-side cabin in a lush forest and this is where, after a drunken night, Miriam and her brother-in-law fall asleep next to a camp fire and the inciting incident occurs. The acting and writing is convincing in establishing the relationships between Miriam and her sister (lots of laughter and reminiscing) and Miriam and Dylan, who have also known each other for years. The breezy banter, with lots of piss-taking, is completely believable and we get to know who these people are quickly at the start of the film.
Intercut with this light-hearted family drama (at the beginning) are clues that the film is likely to take a turn. These include the brilliant score by Andrea Boccadoro, which is opulent and grand, with choral elements that give the forest setting a more ancient feel and also that the events unfolding will be “a tale as old as time.” The other factor is the coverage shots (by cinematographer Adam Crosby) of the forest, including a recurring black wolf, one landscape shot that is a mirror image and others that highlight the cruelty of nature.
Once things take a turn to revenge, there is a prolonged scene that some viewers will find hard to stomach. For me, the provocative elements of Violation (which is written and directed by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer) absolutely had a purpose. They are very well acted by Sims-Fewer and LaVercombe and showing every stage/detail of the clean-up operation afterwards also feels necessary to include. One less explored aspect is Miriam’s relationship with her husband Caleb, which feels slightly side-lined and under-developed. It doesn’t help that the other three characters have a huge history behind them and he is more of an outsider. The different sides we see to Miriam and Greta’s relationship are more of a strength and is a genuine depiction of a multi-faceted, complex dynamic.
I’m all for women filmmakers taking on ‘difficult’ subject-matters that have long been the preserve of men. Women exploring the extreme lengths of both sex and violence through a new perspective is to be welcomed, because every subject-matter should be open to them, just as they have been to male directors for decades. Pleasure and Violation both bring exciting new voices into this arena and it will be interesting to see where Thyberg, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli go next.
Pleasure Rating: ★★½
Violation Rating: ★★★½
Violation will be coming to Shudder on March 25 2021.