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Sleeper of the Week: ‘Mustang’

Sleeper of the Week: 'Mustang'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

Dir: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Criticwire Average: B+

Set in a village in northern Turkey, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” details the lives of five young sisters growing up in a conservative, patriarchal society. After a harmless incident involving boys from their school, the sisters’ grandmother and their uncle keep them from leaving the house as they try to get them ready to be married off. During this time, the sisters rebel in various ways by sneaking out of the house, attending football matches, and hitching rides, but eventually the sisters must reckon with their imprisonment in a much more direct, violent way. Screened in the Director’s Fortnight section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Europa Cinema Labels Award, “Mustang” was also recently nominated by the Academy Awards for a Best Foreign Language Film. Since its world premiere, it has garnered widespread critical acclaim for its empathetic portrayal of coming-of-age in a domineering society as well as drawing comparisons with Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides.”

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times

Ms. Ergüven, who was born in Turkey, brings deft timing and an unapologetic appreciation of beauty to the story, qualities missing from other, schematic portrayals of clashes with traditional mores, Turkish or otherwise. Feather-light camerawork by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok is matched by a nimble screenplay written by Ms. Ergüven with Alice Winocour. The ensemble of young actresses is a constantly restless and real presence, the perspective filtered mostly through the cheeky Lale but also through the group as a loving crew. Read more.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture (New York magazine)

There were times in “Mustang,” particularly the first half, when I wished we got to know these girls better, and that they were a bit more differentiated in their boisterousness. But that’s also the point. They’re being whisked away from us before they’ve had a chance to develop and become fully realized people. “The house became a bride factory,” Lale bemoans at one point, as the girls are taught how to cook and clean and behave. A factory, and maybe also a slaughterhouse: As each girl is consumed by tradition, as each new suitor family shows up, Ergüven plays up the gnawing sense of doom, as in a thriller where the characters are picked off in succession. The broad outlines of this story aren’t particularly new. Turkish cinema is filled with female characters who long to escape unwanted arranged marriages, so much so that it’s become cliché even as parody at this point. But “Mustang” breathes new life into the old trope by reconnecting it with the elemental horror that drives it. These aren’t just body-snatchers; they take your soul, too. And it’s a further testament to Ergüven’s filmmaking that other common motifs of Turkish melodrama that she’s re-imagined here – everything from the liberated Western teacher in a small town, to the kindly truck driver, to the wedding that becomes a daring getaway – feel thoroughly new, even to these tired, jaded eyes. But there’s something else here, too: Beyond the expertly tense tick-tock-tick-tock of her narrative, Ergüven demonstrates an understanding of what drives these traditions and mores. For “Mustang” is one of the few films I’ve seen that also grasps the perverted idealism that lies behind all this forced modesty. When Lale asks her uncle if she can go to a soccer match with him, he dismisses her with talk of all the gruesome, foulmouthed men who come to games and start fights. He claims to be protecting her. Grandma, too, believes she’s thinking of their best interests — their future in a land that will always judge them as wives, mothers, and homemakers. So much of what’s done to these girls is done for what others perceive will be their own good. The debilitating paternalism of this world denies its victims agency in an attempt to coddle and protect and preserve. That’s the cold, hard truth at the heart of this beautiful, harrowing film. Read more.

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com

As depressing as all this sounds — and as quietly damning as “Mustang” is in its depiction of patriarchal oppression — the way the girls react to the tightening of the vice around them provides a consistent source of surprise and even hope. Each responds differently, from acquiescence to defiance, but their loyalty to each other and the strength of their sisterly bond remains true. They’re such a cohesive unit that it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart, such as when they’re goofing off on the bedroom floor in a tangle of wavy hair, long limbs and giggles. And the fact that Ergüven chose non-professional actors to play these five vibrant young women gives the film an added layer of authenticity. She leaves some questions unanswered, though: how do the sisters feel about their parents’ absence, especially as their current living situation grows increasingly grim? And a couple of the middle sisters get lost in the shuffle, personality-wise. But their collective story adds up to a deeply moving whole, and its conclusion brings the narrative full-circle with an image that’s simple but powerful in its sense of possibility. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

Combined with the somewhat generic characterization, this increasingly makes “Mustang” feel like a domestic horror movie in which patriarchy is the implacable serial killer, severing the jugular vein of each girl’s spirit. As the film’s symbolic title suggests, though, its not quite that easy. Ergüven doesn’t downplay the hardships (which range from stifling boredom to sexual abuse), but she’s equally invested in the occasional surges of heady liberation, as when the sisters manage to escape and head for a soccer game. A lot of “Mustang,” in fact, plays like a prison movie with a spiky sense of humor, especially as the sisters who get married disappear and the youngest, Lale, increasingly takes center stage. Toward the end, as she and her last remaining sister make their final break, it becomes clear that Lale has a specific destination in mind, but there’s no indication as to what it might be — everyone she knows, it seems, is either one of her oppressors or equally oppressed. So much energy gets directed into sexualizing these children against their will that nobody pays any attention to what they actually value. The answer, when it comes, is at once so unexpected, and so retroactively obvious, that it’s downright shattering. Read more.

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