In a tangle of limbs and long hair, five young sisters in a small coastal Turkish town come of age against a backdrop of sun, secrets, and socially-mandated sexual suppression in Deniz Gamze Ergüven‘s heartfelt, beautifully performed debut feature “Mustang.” Co-written with 2015 Un Certain Regard director Alice Winocour (our review of her film “Disorder” is here), the film presents an insightful, engaging, and often enraging perspective on the treatment of women, and especially pubescent girls, living within a restrictive and regressive cultural environment. In this small community, female sexuality is regarded as a treacherous and dangerous force that must be corralled and owned in its entirety by men (i.e. the girls must be married extremely young, and they must be virgins). But while the view of this culture is undoubtedly authentic, it is coded by the filmmaker’s criticism — highly justifiable criticism, but it’s a bias that should be noted — so it’s less an inside-out presentation than one that looks, and passes judgment, from the outside in. However the five young women we look in at are so winning, so perfectly inhabited, and so very lovely, that a great many of the film’s flaws can be wholeheartedly forgiven.
It’s the last day of school and on their way home Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy) and her four older sisters Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) take advantage of the sunshine to walk, or rather gambol coltishly home (the film’s title is a reference to the wild horses indigenous to the area). In high spirits they frolic in the shallows at the beach, along with some boys of their acquaintance. This entirely innocent playtime is witnessed by a neighbor, however, who informs the girls’ grandmother of their “immoral” behavior — being carried on a boy’s shoulders is in this town tantamount to “pleasuring oneself on his neck.” In response, a series of ever-more draconian sanctions is instigated against the girls by their grandmother and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), their parents having died a decade before. The older ones are sent to get virginity tests; telephones and computers are locked away; a drab uniform of shapeless brown dresses is mandated; bars are put on the windows. “The house became,” says the indomitable Lale, “a wife factory.”
The story canters along episodically, using Lale as the anchor, so we get the perspective of the youngest girl, who as so often is the most independent and outspoken, on the fates of the elder. Some of the incidents are funny: a trip to a forbidden football match leads to a kindly aunt downing the electricity supply for the whole town so Erol and his cronies won’t see the girls on television. Some are disturbing, like the revelation that Erol is sexually abusive toward at least one of the girls, or the downright medieval wedding night ritual of displaying a bloodied sheet as proof of consummation and the bride’s virginity. And some are outright tragic, as the girls, skilfully individualized even though they’re part of a pack, respond in very different ways to the prospect of loveless marriages, initiation into the world of sex, loss of the relative freedom of childhood, and, of course, separation from each other.
This last is a powerful factor in the film’s effectiveness. While the sisterly bond here seems slightly more practical, less borderline-mystical than in the nearest comparison point “The Virgin Suicides,” it is still a lovely portrayal of siblinghood: an unconcerned closeness that often manifests in physical proximity as all five are packed into the back seats of cars or laze about on top of each other in one of the shared bedrooms. And again, it’s all the more effective for being seen through Lale’s eyes. Still on the other side of the puberty divide, she is the one who reacts with most antipathy toward the specter of marriage, which not only bears down on her ever closer as each subsequent sister is parceled up and raffled off, but also progressively strips away her support structure.
But if the performances are superbly naturalistic, Warren Ellis‘ score unobtrusively fitting, and David Chizallet and Ersin Gök‘s photography subtly poignant, Ergüven’s relative inexperience shows in other ways. The shooting of the football crowd scene is very obviously not at a football game, and so becomes an almost surreal moment in a film that does not really deal in surreality. Lale’s voiceover is often unnecessary — with the young actress doing such wonders with her lovably truculent character, we don’t need any more reasons to root for Lale, we’re already there. Most importantly, time, duration, and cause-and-effect are not particularly well established, so the film staggers rather than flows, especially in the beginning when it’s simply difficult to understand how a culture so repressive can have fostered five such willful, mischievous girls in the first place, with eldest being in her mid-teens already. They feel a little more like Westernized, or at least urbanized children, who have suddenly been dropped into this rural backwater situation rather than natural products of an environment in which they’ve always lived.
Furthermore, little attempt is made to understand the provenance of this repressive culture, or to suggest how it might be dismantled, rather than merely escaped. Characters like the grandmother, who loves the girls and is at times indulgent of them yet is also fully complicit in their subjugation, are given short shrift. So essential questions — like, how can you love a child and yet uphold a system that would see her spirit smothered — are never addressed, in favor of a more simplistic, and less than wholly believable escape/flight narrative.
Yet even these qualms are largely smoothed over through the sheer force of the cast’s charm. The exuberant life and liveliness that spills off the screen and the effortless sororal chemistry between these young actresses are compelling reasons to seek out “Mustang,” and to welcome the arrival of Ergüven as a promising new female voice in the Turkish cinema scene. In fact, her laudable desire to mine the specificity of the frankly repugnant cultural environment she explores here may be less impressive than her facility for capturing a universal sense of spirited girlishness. Which makes “Mustang” less a cultural critique, and more a bittersweet, often angry lament for childhoods ended before childhood has actually ended. [B]