“I am 47 years old, and for all my life I tried to be dutiful.”
This is the confession of an Australian woman, who strived to be the daughter who’d make her mother proud, the wife that’d impress her husband, the mother that’d awe her children. In trying to conform to please everyone else, she lost herself. At 47, she was divorced, depressed, and ready to kill herself. However, having not experienced sexual touch for 12 years, she decided to go out with a bang. More specifically, she hired an escort to give her the physical connection she craved. That sexual encounter changed her life. Re-invigorated and ravenous for more, she re-invented herself as a feminist porn star. Her story seems like a salacious beach read or a daring indie drama. But this is the life story of a real woman, revealed in the Fantasia-selected documentary Morgana.
Co-directed by Josie Hess and Isabel Peppard, Morgana takes audiences through the incredible journey of Morgana Muses, who found herself through making pornos and put herself (body, soul, and backstory) into the films she makes. Her first effort was an autobiographical porno based on her pivotal escort experience. The film was lauded at feminist porn awards, which encouraged her to continue her sexual explorations on camera. She played out fantasies involving knife play, bondage, and cake smashing with equal relish. In her fifties, she is a groundbreaking porn pioneer, pushing the boundaries of how female desire is expressed and who represents it.
Muses is by no means your typical porn star. Aside from the long stint of celibacy, she admits she didn’t masturbate until her 40s. From there, all the desires and curiosities she repressed she embraced, often in her art. The film gives glimpses of her work, alongside interviews with other adult film performers, sex educators, colleagues, and feminist theorists. These interviews chiefly shape how Muses is viewed by the porn community, addressing her breakthroughs and the uniqueness of her perspective. However, the doc chiefly relies on her to tell her own story.
The first 47 years of her life is swiftly whisked through in a talking head interview intercut with artful representations of the shallow trappings of nuclear family living. Paper houses stand-in for the paper-thin pleasure she found basing her identity in wife and mother. A dollhouse aflame expresses the hell she felt upon her divorce, being let loose but also lost. There are no interviews with her biological family. Her disapproving mother, teen children, and cruel ex-husband exist only as asides in Muses’ musings. Which might be fine as this is her story. However, it makes this thread feel a bit thin, as the film and Muses race away from it.
The trouble with this is that we can not just leave the past behind us, as Muses learns. She experiences a meteoric rise in acclaim and fame in the industry. Yet those victories do not defeat her demons. She still suffers from depression so deep she sometimes can’t leave her bed, much less perform in it. While on camera, she feels beautiful and invincible. Yet, she can’t look in a mirror without experiencing the body dysmorphia brought on by decades of fatphobic, body-shaming remarks from others. At 50, Muses’ flesh has wrinkles, folds, and scars. In her work, they are brushstrokes in the masterpiece of her persona, who is fearless, glorious, and beautiful. In her life, they spark intrusive thoughts that threaten to bring her down.
The doc’s exploration of her struggles is empathetic, never exploitative. The filmmakers (one of whom is Muses’ editor/cinematographer/partner in porn) never push to a place of intrusion. As such, Morgana is more a tribute to Muses than a deep dive into her life. There will be no conflicting opinions about how she viewed things. No talking heads will criticize her work. This is all in praise. Muses is undeniably an inspiration. After decades of patriarchal brainwashing that trapped her in repression, self-loathing, and misery, she broke free and charted her own course to love, happiness, and satisfaction. Showing that this road is not a smooth one pays tribute to her resilience, and also offers hope to others who struggle with self-love, mental illness, and self-doubt. Still, I wished for this fascinating story to have more depth.
This doc is an enchanting invitation into Muses’ sensational story of self-discovery, creation, and survival. I yearned to know more. I craved interviews with those who knew her before her awakening. I wondered where her relationship with her daughters stood as her story progressed. I wanted to hear more about the nerves her work had touched. As it is, there is little conflict within the film. The family drama is all distanced. Her internal struggles are undercut by the doc’s rah-rah tone, which firmly assures us Muses will get a happy ending.
Ultimately, Morgana is intriguing, titillating, celebratory, and reverent to its provocative subject. However, as it doesn’t penetrate the rich folds of this remarkable story, I was left a bit unsatisfied.
Morgana makes its North American Premiere at Fantasia 2020. To learn more about the festival and how you can participate, visit their site.
Header Image Source: House of Gary