“We need to remember that it’s completely normal and healthy to allow ourselves to be happy, if that’s hiring an escort, going on a blind date, getting tied up or just eating cake.” Morgana Muses
Morgana (2019) Dir: Isobel Peppard and Josie Hess
Morgana is an extraordinary documentary about an extraordinary woman. Five years in production, it is the story of a suburban Australian housewife who reinvented herself as a sex-positive pornographer and kinky inspirational muse.
Originally intended to be a short film, you can see why the directors decided to make this into a full-length feature film instead. There is just so much story to tell.
Morgana, having spent her life unhappily conforming to society’s expectations as a wife and mother, finds that post divorce, the world seems to have no place for her any more. She feels like a social pariah, that she is nothing if she isn’t married and that she has nothing left to offer anyone any more.
She decides at the age of 47 to end her life, but to first hire a male escort as a ‘last fabulous hurrah’ before going home and killing herself.
And thank fuck she did. Having been celibate for twelve years, Morgana describes the experience of being touched and connecting with another human being sexually as if “someone had flicked the switch and the power came on. I felt like I had come alive.”
This is such a wonderfully positive portrayal of sex work. John, the escort that Morgana hired and who she hired again shortly afterwards, not only features in this documentary but also in Morgana’s first erotic film.
Because having discovered the joys of sex, Morgana continues her research diligently and enthusiastically, discovering a world of ethical porn made by independent film-makers. Most notably, she discovers that the feminist porn director Petra Joy presents an annual award for first-time film-makers and decides to have a go. Her film ‘Duty Bound’ won first place in the competition – a very prestigious platform from which to launch a film-making career.
The porn made by Morgana’s company, Permission4Pleasure is witty and inventive. She picks up and runs with tropes which interest her, be it cake, magical music boxes or a satire of 1950s advice for women.
The awards and recognition roll in and Morgana moves to Berlin, to fully embrace life within her new kinky community family. And there’s a lot of kink here. Morgana is pleasingly up for almost anything it seems. Rope, knives, wax-play, breath-play, sploshing. It all gets metaphorically pulled out of the toybox and played with for our pleasure.
And Morgana’s own pleasure of course. She may not look like a conventional porn star but that makes her all the more fascinatingly sexy. In her down-to-earth Australian accent she tells us “I don’t have a conventionally pretty face. I was always too large, too loud, my breasts were too small.”
She is a plus-sized woman over forty-five, her body bears the scars of her lived in experience. She is like me.
As a fat forty-six year old woman who didn’t full embrace my kinks until I reached forty, there is a lot I can relate to in Morgana’s story.
Not least the accounts of the mental health issues that Morgana has struggled with for her whole life. I have lived with clinical depression for thirty years (well, it’s probably more, but at least I had a name for it after my first suicide attempt at sixteen), the depiction of Morgana’s depression with bi-polar tendencies, proved hard – and all too relatable – viewing.
At times the documentary seemed almost too intrusive – training a camera in her face while she’s crying at Albury train station, especially. But given the close relationship that Morgana has with directors, Isobel Peppard and Josie Hess throughout the film, I don’t believe that anything was recorded and included without Morgana’s consent.
It would have been easy to finish this film at the half-way mark and present it as a straightforward tale of a depressed, suicidal woman whose life was turned around by discovering the inner pornography-making sex goddess who was always there waiting to come out. You could have stopped it on her 50th birthday with the breath-taking film It’s my birthday and I’ll fly if I want to or when Morgana was extolling the virtues (and delightful vices) of living in Berlin. “I’ve wiped away so much of the past,” she tells us. “This feels like where I’ve always been.”
But this isn’t a straightforward tale of how happy sex times ‘fixed’ depression. Because depression doesn’t work like that.
Despite the accolades and awards, the friends she has made and the strangers’ lives she has positively impacted, depression doesn’t get cured and when it hits Morgana again, it hits hard. “I still have this inner dialogue that I’m not worthy. That I’m not worthy of happiness or success. That I have nothing worthwhile to say. Or do.”
One of the triggers for Morgana’s relapse into depression is that there’s no money left. Morgana, it turns out, has been funding Permission4Pleasure and its films from her divorce settlement. I was shocked when it was revealed. She’s won awards! I don’t know anything about the adult film industry, but, hey I always assumed there was money in it.
Morgana leaves Berlin and returns to Australia. I wanted to put the word ‘undaunted’ at the beginning of the last sentence but that wouldn’t be true. Morgana is daunted. And her defeat is played out on camera for us all to see including scenes of her lying in bed unable to summon up the energy to do anything else and tearful phone conversations with director Josie Hess where she seeks reassurance that the documentary they are making will be a success and Hess tries to help her from her mental hole by asking her to promise that she will take a shower today.
But although mental illness is part of Morgana’s story (beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed in her own film Life of Bi), it isn’t all there is to Morgana’s story. And I’m sorry if I made it sound if it is. I am writing this review through the fug of my own exhausting depression at the moment and that probably doesn’t help.
This is a film about hope, about sex, about art, about finding out who you are and embracing that person. “Thanks body,” says Morgana. “I appreciate you getting me here.”
Excerpts of Permission4Pleasure’s films are peppered throughout Morgana. They are a delight to watch and we finish with snippets from her two most recent films, the brilliantly titled Labia of Love and Ladies and the tramp. (The tramp in question being a trampoline.)
Morgana is still creating art that reflects her wonderfully unique take on sex and sexuality. She is role model to many of us and to me in particular.
Nobody gets to decide who we are or how we should present ourselves, but us. Women don’t have an expiry date. The way we express ourselves in sex, kink and life, doesn’t need the permission of the patriarchy. We are strong, independent and we are real. I am real.
And that is a message that I needed to hear right now.
Morgana is not yet on general release but is available to watch at film festival screenings. For details, check out the official Morgana Documentary website.