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James Franco’s Movie Column: Why ‘Mustang’ is the Best Film of the Year

James Franco's Movie Column: Why 'Mustang' is the Best Film of the Year

This is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is a place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them, but a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry — where writers review other writer’s books — the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. —James Franco

READ MORE: In a Surprise Move, France Chooses ‘Mustang’ Over ‘Dheepan’ for Foreign Oscar

James: I think this is my favorite film this year. At least so far.

Semaj: France submitted it as the country’s foreign language entry in the Oscar race.

James: As they should. It’s a beautiful film — beautiful acting and beautiful directing.

Semaj: I agree. But what do you like so much, specifically?

James: I think the characters and their relationships are what hold it together, that’s where much of the magic is. The young actresses playing sisters are incredible.

Semaj: Yeah, no shit. I could just watch them for hours just being themselves — their dynamic is so charming and authentic. And the way the group scenes are shot, with minimal cuts, you get the sense that they’re just living life and the camera is incidental, that the camera is a true fly on the wall, and there is a whole world of life happening that the camera just happened to glimpse.

James: Yeah, but don’t be fooled, that loose shooting approach is completely intentional. There are some stunningly beautiful shots, and compositions, despite the fact that the overall shooting style is roaming and handheld: When all five sisters are backlit on a couch in the doctor’s office, waiting to have their hymens checked because their uncle suspects them of having sex before marriage; when everyone is preparing for the two eldest daughters’ weddings and then everyone rushes to windows to look down at the arrival of the grooms’ party as they come up the windy country road; when the littlest one, Lale, after running away, is walking down the rural road and the camera slowly glides after her little body dwarfed by the roadside trees.

Semaj: Okay, it’s well-shot, too. I get your point. Very naturalistic.

James: Yeah, but it’s not just that. Yes, it has a kind of hyperrealism that you find in movies by the Dardenne brothers like “The Child,” “The Son,” and “Rosetta,” or the early films of Lynne Ramsay like “Ratcatcher” or “Morvern Callar,” or even some Lars Von Trier, like “Breaking the Waves.” But this feels a little different, because there is almost always a group dynamic happening. In “Mustang,” there are all these scenes with the group of girls, so that the energy within the frame is always alive, always bursting with more activity than it can hold.

Semaj: Exactly. The actresses are just behaving, just being. It doesn’t feel scripted at all, more like the director just gave them scenarios and then had them live them out.

James: This was Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s directorial debut. I guess she was an actress before this. She directed a couple short films, but that’s all.

Semaj: Well, her work with the actors really shows, so I could believe that she has an acting background. They didn’t even seem like actors. They just seemed like girls living out their lives.

James: Which is really hard to do with younger actors.

Semaj: Although it seems like there has been a whole slew of young actors killing it lately: Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit,” Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Abraham Attah in “Beasts of No Nation,” James Freedson-Jackson, and Hays Wellford in “Cop Car,” and Jacob Tremblay in “Room.”

James: Yeah, I guess if you put kids in adult movies they can give just as powerful performances as experienced actors.

Semaj: But the situation is even a little different in “Mustang,” because there are five of them, and they’re all so good, so specific.

James: So let’s talk about the elephant on the screen.

Semaj: What elephant? There aren’t any animals in this movie.

James: No, the fact that this movie’s premise is so similar to “The Virgin Suicides.”

Semaj: Oh, well it is and it isn’t. Yes, it is about five sisters who get locked in their house ostensibly for their own protection, but the way their stories play out, and the way that the characters are accessed in “Mustang” is completely different than what happens in “The Virgin Suicides.”

James: “The Virgin Suicides” is one of my favorite books. Eugenides uses the group, “we” narrator, so it’s as if one amorphous group of characters — the boys who are narrating the piece — is looking at another group that is equally vague, the sisters locked in the house.

Semaj: Yeah, that “we” narrator is mysterious, and very literary. It seems to work better in books than on screen because you can’t see them in a book, so it can be as if they were all talking at once, or one of them was talking for all of them. It’s what Faulkner used in his most famous short story, “A Rose For Emily.”

James: You’re right, it’s very literary, because the purposely vague “we” narrator of the book is changed in the movie and actually personified by a group of actual boys that we can see, and quantify. And thus they’re no longer the group narrator.

Semaj: Yeah, it got changed a little bit in the movie. But I still think it’s a beautiful movie. And another feature directing debut, for young Sofia Coppola.

James: Yeah, that movie was awesome. But “Mustang” is different because there is no mediating group of characters looking at the sisters here. The narrator is Lale, the youngest of the sisters. We see almost all of the action through Lale’s eyes, and because of that the sisters are more present to us. We are situated in a much closer relationship to them than in “The Virgin Suicides.” There, the sisters are meant to be mysterious, and removed.
Semaj: And “Mustang” is in some ways more active, less bleak. “The Virgin Suicides” gets much of its power from the pall of inevitable tragedy that is cast over the sisters. Even the title tells us that things are not going to end well, as opposed to the “Mustang” title, which I read as a characterization of the youngest daughter, Lale, because she is like a little feral horse, bucking against her situation.
James: Yes, the sisters in “Mustang” are less resigned to their fate. They all actively push back against their imprisonment, and the patriarchal mores forced upon them.

Semaj: They draw strength from their sisterhood. They are strongest when they are all together.

James: What about the argument that says this isn’t a realistic depiction of contemporary Turkey? That they aren’t so strict about virginity nowadays as it is depicted in the movie?

Semaj: I don’t know what it’s like in Turkey. But it’s not as if “The Virgin Suicides” represents all families in Grosse Point, Michigan. They’re both stories, fictional stories, not non-fiction, or documentaries. These movies are meant to evoke emotions from the audience. They can touch on underlying cultural dynamics by showing extreme situations without necessarily having to depict the status quo.

James: Meaning, it’s a movie, it doesn’t have a responsibility to show all sides of Turkish life, or show what most families are like. It just has to tell its story.

Semaj: Exactly.

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