Film Review: Mustang

Turkish Coming-Of-Age Drama Says The Girls Can’t Help It

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Girl pile
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Five schoolgirl sisters frolic in the surf of a Turkish beach, splashing, playing chicken and clowning with several schoolmates of the male persuasion. All are fully clothed, and the act has the hallmarks of unbridled childhood free-spiritedness. Later, the group liberates a few apples from a cranky neighbor’s orchard. Innocent as it might be, this passing afternoon of child’s play sends ripples through the sisters’ rural Turkish community.

Raised by their old-fashioned grandmother and conservative religious uncle in the wake of their parents’ untimely death, the girls’ undisciplined actions are seen as somehow “impure.” Clearly these wild child siblings are out of control and will never evolve into proper marriage material. The solution? Remove all corrupting outside influences (telephones, television, magazines, chewing gum) and lock them up tightly inside their house.

This is the premise of writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s patriarchy-eviscerating debut feature
Mustang. Though it appears to borrow some of its initial premise from The Virgin Suicides (both Sophia Coppola’s 2000 film and Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel), the setting gives it a unique tenor and a sort of ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

The story is well-set in Turkey, a country that has spent a good many decades waffling between old world conservatism and first world modernity. Funny how the more macho and patriarchal a culture is, the more terrified it is of female sexuality.
Mustang tackles this head-on, exposing the cruel lengths certain male-dominated societies go to to preserve the “chastity” of the female gender. (Seriously, you haven’t experienced sexism until you’ve had your in-laws banging on the door of your honeymoon suite demanding bloody sheets as proof of your virginity. Ew. Just ew.)

Following their scandalous escapade on the beach, the girls’ house is transformed into “a wife factory.” They’re grounded, of course. They’re relegated to shapeless, sexless dresses as well. And their grandmother sets up a bootcamp, teaching them how to cook and clean for their future husbands, because … well, what else is a girl good for? But burgeoning teenage sexuality comes despite the fervent wishes and best efforts of the adults around them. Free will bubbles to the surface, hormones arrive like clockwork and teenage rebellion rears its shaggy head, no matter the country or religious surroundings.

One day, weary of their segregation, the girls sneak out of the house to watch a soccer match. Ergüven stages the sequence as a giddy celebration of freedom—but it’s a short-lived sensation for the girls. When they return home, things only ratchet up for them. Metal bars are put up on all the windows, doors are locked and the five siblings find themselves in a prison far more literal than figurative. After that, the only thing left to do is start dealing the sisters out to potential local grooms like cards at a blackjack table.

This chain of hasty, arranged marriages threatens to break the one strength these girls have—the unity of their sisterhood. The film rarely chooses to differentiate the personalities of the sisters, but that’s to the advantage of the tale at hand. They are like a single, amorphous entity, barely capable of sustaining itself as its limbs are separated. The story is told, ultimately, from the perspective of the youngest of the sisters, Lale (Günes Sensoy). Well under the age of puberty, she’s years away from marriage and can only watch and wait as her sisters get picked off, one by one, like characters in an ’80s slasher film.

The five lead actresses have a natural, easy chemistry. Much credit goes to Ergüven, who captures them in a string of seemingly unguarded moments, simply trying to live their lives as kids despite the deprivations being heaped upon them. They are, by turns, restless, rambunctious, angry, playful, rebellious and unfazed by all that’s going on around them. The filmmaker even allows a few quick lightening flashes of black humor to punctuate the film, giving it some welcome moments of levity.

Like Coppola before her, Ergüven is a young, female director—and she seems uniquely suited to spin this exotic, coming-of-age yarn. She does so not by denying the sexuality, curiosity and desires of her underage characters, but by acknowledging them in a simple, honest way. The male take on budding female sexuality tends to be of the calculating, Lolita-ish variety. The female take on the same looks far more natural, an unavoidable organic outgrowth of chemistry and physiology. It is, in a word, quite innocent—at least until grown-ups start messing around with it, trying to stamp it out, contain it, commodify it or otherwise “adulterate” it.

Mustang may lack the ethereal poetry of The Virgin Suicides (in both book and movie form), but it’s a much more direct and emotional film. It both typifies and transcends a certain culture, prevalent around the world (and not just in the Middle East, either). Within this talking point Ergüven has created an engaging and occasionally playful drama about perceived transgressions, patriarchal repressions and the undeniable spirit of youth.

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