It starts with three women scouring a grassy patch of woodland, searching for a gully that can double as a grave during their film shoot. It follows a rollercoaster ride of a story from unhappy matrimony in conservative regional Australia to exploring the porn and BDSM worlds in Berlin, and features a plethora of clips from adult movies. But the most powerful and confronting moment in Aussie documentary Morgana might just be the first time its eponymous subject utters the term “facade living”. Morgana Muses is referring to her life before she got divorced at 45, dared to start indulging her desires at 47, began making her own erotica and became a feminist pornography star in her fifties — and the term is so instantly astute that it’s devastating.
In their candid and energetic documentary, first-time feature-length filmmakers Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess don’t just show Muses applying that phrase to much of her existence — her childhood as the daughter of European immigrants who expected her to be dutiful above all else, and her marriage to a man she quickly realised she was incompatible with — but explore its lingering impact. In heartbreakingly honest discussions, frequently to camera, the film’s central figure talks through her life, with the mandate that she comply, obey and assimilate drummed into her from an early age. So too was the notion that, if she defied her parents or husband, she was worthless. Before she walked down the aisle, her mother would ask, “why isn’t anyone marrying you? What’s wrong with you?” Years into her far-from-wedded bliss, when she used food as a coping mechanism for depression, her husband would arrive at social events separately to avoid being seen in her company.
After weathering nearly a half-century of such a damaging, detrimental mindset, a yearning for freedom eventually overwhelmed Muses. If it hadn’t — and if she hadn’t enjoyed a rendezvous with a male escort as part of her plan to end it all, then emerged from that tryst with hope, desire and the initial signs of a new lease on life — this film wouldn’t exist. But the imprint left by her drearier days was considerable, no matter how much happiness beckoned in new experiences, new places, new hair colours, new friends, newfound fame and glittering porn industry accolades. Morgana navigates a delicate, crucial balancing act, charting the highs, the liberty, the self-expression and the trail-blazing determination to dismantle stereotypes, yet never forgetting the pain that still casts a shadow. Peppard and Hess’s sex-positive, anti-ageist documentary celebrates Muses’ later-in-life sexual awakening and new career, the empowerment that came with it, her role in championing pornography made for the female gaze and the inspirational status she now holds; however it doesn’t hide the engrained self-doubt that continues to plague its subject.
It can’t be understated how pivotal both sides of this story are, or how they’re skillfully examined by Peppard and Hess — with the latter also the cinematographer and editor on a number of Muses’ films. Tales of against-the-odds surges to prominence typically only travel in one direction, leaving misery behind for ecstasy, but that’s not the narrative here. Taking a risk sets the lonely housewife on a new path, filled with release, solace and creative catharsis. Alas, years of internalising other people’s standards and disapproval can’t be shed as easily as clothing, or swapped for saucy outfits, or transformed into sultry visions of splendour, even when they’re accompanied by unparalleled joy.
Sharing triumphs, new discoveries and her bleakest moments alike, Muses is a gift of subject: frank, unfettered, and unafraid to reveal her complexity and contradictions. Also a boon to the documentary are her films, which flesh out her story in a way that discussion by itself couldn’t. It’s one thing for a deftly edited array of experts and those involved in the porn industry, such as Muses’ idol and inspiration, German filmmaker Petra Joy, to sing her praises — or for Australian comedian Judith Lucy to emphasise how groundbreaking it is, but shouldn’t be, for someone of Muses’ age to venture into porn (“it’s extraordinary to me, this idea that if a woman is over a certain age, you’ve basically hung your vagina up on the wall,” she comments). It’s another thing completely, however, to witness Muses’ work and appreciate its effect personally, as interwoven with her life story.
Peppard and Hess also deploy handmade miniature sets for dramatic effect, a choice that could’ve played as overstated and overdramatic, but adds playfulness and personality to the film. That’s supremely fitting, of course — as Morgana chronicles the ups and downs of Muses’ life, delving deep into both extremes, it always lets her vibrancy and curiosity break free of the facade that once constrained her, and thoroughly steal the show.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may be interested in reading Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ interview with Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess on Morgana and Feminist Porn.