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A naive young blonde with a cracked-pepper voice and a bee-stung pout arrives in LA to become a star: it’s a story as old as the movies. But in Ninja Thyberg’s explicit yet curiously remote debut, the blonde has just stepped off not a bus from the sticks, but a plane from Sweden, and the counter is the immigration desk at LAX, not Schwab’s drugstore. The ingénue-on-the-make itinerary mapped out by Pleasure may be familiar, but the destination is less so: few star-is-born narratives feature this many variously erect penises, for one thing, and fewer still an extended sequence of said starlet working a painfully large butt plug into her rear in preparation for double-anal penetration.

Linnéa a.k.a. Bella Cherry (an eerily empty-eyed Sofia Kappel) aspires to a glittering career in porn, Hollywood’s dark-mirror movie industry, with a pragmatism that makes it hardly your standard-issue Tinseltown pipe dream. When the airport officer asks the purpose of her visit, she replies “Pleasure”, but only after a moment’s hesitation indicating that pleasure – the giving of it, the taking of it, the faking of it – is also her intended business.

Bella’s single-mindedness is akin to Thyberg’s matter-of-fact approach in documenting the 19-year-old’s unglamorous entry into the business. It’s also reflected in Sophie Winqvist Loggins’s clever photography, which expertly portrays exploitation without being exploitative, and depicts the plasticky pink attractions of filmed sex fantasies without succumbing to them. We don’t just see Bella on her knees in the classic POV blowjob position; we also watch her being gently coached in maximizing the pose’s skeevy potential, by feigning surprise at her co-star’s size and looking up at him from under heavy synthetic lashes.

She’s also shown shaving her pubic hair in the shower and rising before dawn to apply her mask of sex-doll makeup (funny how, in an industry predicated on actors “doing it for real”, everything else is fake), as she moves into a dingy bungalow with several other porn actresses. Initially her attitude is that of a mean-girl reality TV star proudly “not here to make friends.” But when megastardom doesn’t immediately beckon – when Bella’s unsolicited approach to porn super-agent Mark Spiegler is rebuffed – she thaws, especially toward roommate Joy (a sparky, earthy Revika Anne Reustle). They swap war stories and catty comments on the competition, especially the dazzling, aloof new “Spiegler Girl” Ava (Dita-Von-Teese-alike Evelyn Claire), and hustle their way into industry parties. But Bella will ultimately have to choose between friendship and career advancement, a decision that provides as much of an emotional climax as Thyberg and co-writer Peter Modestij’s slightly formless screenplay can muster.

The issue, perhaps, is that the milieu to which Thyberg has gained such impressive, all-areas access, is more involving than Bella’s story, and the lived-in details of the porn industry’s offscreen machinations – the contract negotiations and safe-word discussions, the covert and overt instances of endemic racism and misogyny – are much more dramatic than this rather vapid protagonist’s inner journey. Aside from Kappel, all the performers come from the adult movie world (even Spiegler plays himself), which gives their characters an easy authenticity that Bella’s comparatively generic arc lacks.

Bella works on well-run, respectful, even enjoyable sets. And she books far less pleasant jobs, including one hard-to-watch turning point in which she’s coerced into unconvincing consent for acts of violence and degradation that are obviously harmful to her. But we remain removed from those experiences: Bella, all startled, incurious expression and brittle ambition, is more a collection of traits than a person. It’s not even clear why she has chosen this career path, save an apparent lack of interest in anything else and an offhand insistence that she “loves dick”.

Which is not to say some horrifying backstory is needed to account for Bella’s ambitions. Indeed, a moment when she makes a bad joke about childhood abuse is the only time she displays agency enough to comment – however tastelessly – on the false perception that the industry is exclusively the last-ditch domain of the traumatised, the abused, the broken. But while Thyberg is at pains not to condemn Bella, or any young woman who freely chooses sex work, her well-crafted, well-performed movie seems caught between challenging ideas about the porn industry’s corrupting influence, and reinforcing them. For all its sex-positivity and careful avoidance of judgment, Pleasure closes on the oddly moralistic suggestion that adult entertainment success inevitably comes at severe cost to the soul – assuming you had one to begin with.

► Pleasure is in UK cinemas now, and is streaming on MUBI from 17 June. The trailer can be viewed here.