The late July heat is just about to peak, school has broken up for the summer and five orphaned sisters, ranging from pre-pubescent to nubile, are coaxed by the sun to skip the bus and take the scenic walk home. As they cut across the pebbled beach that boarders the vast Black Sea behind them, they bump into some class mates. The yet-to-be-suppressed desire to play still coursing through their veins, a game of splash results in a game of chicken. The girls fight – quite competitively – on top of their friend’s (who happen to be boys) shoulders. The first sentence of the voiceover, provided by the youngest, wildest and bolshiest protagonist Lale (Günes Sensoy), both surmises what it is to be alive, and sets up the entire premise of the film: “It’s like everything changed in the blink of an eye. One moment we were fine …”
Perception changes everything.
Rumours from curtain-twitching neighbours have already circulated down the grape-vines that wind around the high walls of the house they live in with their downtrodden grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and perverted, militant uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). As they return home the grandmother beats them chronologically, crying “My granddaughters! Pleasuring themselves on boys’ necks!” (the ridiculous and impractical notion of getting on a boy’s shoulders and pleasuring oneself is not manufactured – this, as with other themes in the film, is inspired by director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s own experiences growing up in Turkey). They are called “disgusting” and their grandmother is informed by uncle Erol that if they have been “sullied” it is her fault.
Though initially the grandmother pleads their innocence (one is lead to believe through the course of the film her pleas are more for her own peace than the girls) she is also complicit in systematically stripping the girls of their possessions, or as Lale puts it “anything that might pervert us”: telephones, computers, books, clothes, keys; and so, in the attempt to rob them of their right of passage. The already high walls are raised, bars are put on windows, they are removed from school and put under the lock and key of their overbearing relatives. Those of age are subjected to virginity tests to ensure they are still “pure”; they are, because, the thing with young girls is, they’ll always find a way – in Sonay’s (Ilayda Akdogan) case, in order to maintain her relationship and avoid breaking her hymen, this involves the “back way”. For Lale, it just means finding a way out.
The sisters are enrolled in the “wife factory” and tutored by their aunts in their new, shapeless, “shit coloured” clothes – that do nothing to detract from their beauty and if anything only enhance it – and are taught to make manti and wrap dolmades with the same grape vines that have imprisoned them. Other activities include the cleaning of, and staring out of, windows; the sister’s equally long, untamed and unveiled tresses make them appear as a harem of Lady of Shallots, trapped in the tower that was once a home.
They are married off one by one, Sonay will only marry her boyfriend, and so achieves some semblance of peace. Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) is aggressively passive towards the course her life will take, and so acts as Sonay’s near-comatose replacement, “she’s one of a kind too”, marrying the gormless, unromantic, box-ticker Osman (Erol Afsin); and so, the three younger sisters are left to their own, and their uncle’s, devices.
Ergüven is Turkish-French, originally from Turkey but residing in France for the majority of her life; Mustang is her first feature film and she’s given herself a tough act to follow. Co-written with Alice Winocour (her only fellow female classmate when they met back in 2002), Mustang has already swept the awards boards, and is the only film, aside from Liz Garbus’s documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, with a female director to be nominated for an Oscar.
Mustang marks the 37th time France has been nominated for foreign language film (it’s a French, German and Turkish production) – which puts it in the same league of such films as, A Prophet (2009) Amelie (2001) and The Last Metro (1980). Though the film is in Turkish, Ergüven believes the film to be a very “modern and radical choice” for France – representing a part of it’s diverse heritage, and the roots of that heritage.
The cast are each uniquely suited to their roles, and though Elit Iscan, playing Ece, is the only one with any previous film experience – Ergüven found Tugba Sunguroglu (who plays Selma) on a flight between Paris and Istanbul, they each inhabit their character like a second skin. But it is the lively Günes Sensoy as Lale, who shines as she delivers the dead-pan script excellently:
Sisters: “They’ll skin us alive”
Lale: “At least something will happen …”
Yasin (Burak Yigit), their knight in a pick-up truck, is a character reminiscent of Bilal in Hideous Kinky (another honest film about muddled roads of empowerment), and the only potentially unbelievable character in the film. But Yigit plays him with just the right amounts of levity, sincerity and detachment to make him plausible.
The score, composed by Nick Cave’s longtime collaborator Warren Ellis (his first solo enterprise) sweeps from the boisterous to the ethereal, and compliments the immersive cinematography that captures the action as if the camera were a ghost in the room. Everything in the film deserves credit really; the costume, the edit, the locations, the set design - because everything in the film assimilates into a greater whole without each element vying for attention.
There’s no avoiding Mustang has repeatedly been compared to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It is reminiscent, yes; there is that day-dream-like quality of life through the hazy, hormone-riddled lens of summertime adolescence, but also; this is better. The two films are entirely comparable; dealing with similar issues, in similar settings, with similar age groups, but where The Virgin Suicides has some great lines, Mustang has great dialogue, consistently; Mustang doesn’t cater to the male gaze, or fantasy - the camera never lingers too long here; and unlike The Virgin Suicides, the romantic idea of doomed young beauties has worn a little thin. (And Ergüven thought Mustang more Escape from Alcatraz anyway.)
Mustang makes you feel a lot of things, it makes you feel inspired, it makes you feel proud (and privileged) to have once been a mischievous schoolgirl; but it also makes you sad, it makes you frustrated and it makes you angry.
It pin-points the crux of a failing relationship: at least one member of the party has not taken the time to get to know or understand the other person for what they are, only for what they are perceived to be. Which is probably why the patriarchal society as a whole has failed, or refused, to ever understand or appreciate ‘the woman’ as a multi-faceted sentient being; and so, the relationship has been biased and warped from the off. Now it’s important for women to tell this story: who we are, what we are actually like. What is female sexuality? Is sexuality being human – or being sexy? Ergüven rightly argues the former with this film, eschewing the titillating for the realistic (or comic).
In a time when Elif Safak has said, "women's rights sliding backwards", Lale shows us the difference between inaction and entrapment, and action and liberation. The difference between accepting what has been taken from you is gone, or finding a way to take it back. It is that simple when it comes down to it, but it usually takes a child to make it that simple.
My only niggle with the film was the ending - because it felt like an ending, where really, there is none. It should have been cut 3-4 minutes earlier; but then, I appreciate endings are very hard to do; especially when you care about the welfare of your characters.