Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Written by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven & Alice Winocour.
Starring: Günes Sensoy (Lale), Doga Zeynep Doguslu (Nur), Tugba Sunguroglu (Selma), Elit Iscan (Ece), Ilayda Akdogan (Sonay), Nihal G. Koldas (The Grandmother), Ayberk Pekcan (Erol), Bahar Kerimoglu (Dilek), Burak Yigit (Yasin).
Every review of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang mentions Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) – and with good reason. Both films are about five, beautiful sisters who try and rebel against their family’s strict rules – trying to control their sexual maturation, with disastrous results. The basic outline of the two films are the same, and Ergüven is clearly inspired by Coppola’s style visually as well. Yet, Mustang is far from a Virgin Suicides rip-off – it’s more of homage really, and one told from a radically different point-of-view, which shifts the entire film a little bit. Part of it is that the film takes place in a small town in Turkey – although religion isn’t mentioned (much) in the film, it is clearly a patriarchal society that stifles the girls – made even worse by the fact that their parents are dead, and so they are being raised by their grandmother, and eventually their controlling uncle, who is more concerned about his reputation than anything else. It’s different in another way as well – The Virgin Suicides, both the Jeffrey Eugenies book and Coppola’s movie, is told from the outside – from the point of view of the boys in the neighborhood, and so the girls remain enigmas, their ultimate fate a little bit of a mystery (we have some, but perhaps not enough, information). Ergüven’s film is told from the inside, deepening out emotional connection with the sisters.
The film opens in what looks like, at least to our Western eyes, a scene of relative innocence, as the sisters decide to walk home from school rather than taking the bus. Some boys join them, and they end up at the beach – playing a game in the water, where the girls sit on the boy’s shoulders and fight each other. Yet this scene of innocence, is the first one that leads to their downfall – or the moment where “Everything turned to shit” as the youngest of the sisters, Lale, says. A neighbor rats them out, and their grandmother is made that they are rubbing their privates on boys necks. Her reaction, which seems extreme, is nothing compared to how their uncle reacts when he arrives. He thinks the grandmother lets them get away with everything – and he’s determined to put an end to that. The girls are quickly withdrawn from school, given frumpy brown dresses and pretty much locked away from the outside world. They are put through “wife training”, and one at a time the uncle and grandmother conspire to marry them off – despite the fact that the oldest is only around 17, and the youngest maybe 12.
The film is about this patriarchal society that sexualizes these young girls in the name of protecting them from their sexuality. It views this sexuality as evil, so it conspires to marry them off – often to older men – to protect them from that. The film almost feels at times like a horror movie – where one-by-one, the girls get picked off - instead of murder though, it’s a wedding sequence. Once they are married off, they are barely seen in again. As the sisters start disappearing, the ones left behind become increasingly desperate. This is heightened by the fact that in the early scenes, the girls almost function as a single unit rather that individuals unto themselves – so when one disappears, the rest are somewhat lesser. The oldest daughter at least gets to marry someone she loves (although who you love at the age of 17 is rarely the person you should spend your whole life with) – the rest are not nearly as lucky.
Mustang is a rather quiet film – and one that sneaks up on you a little bit. There is quite a bit of humor in the early scenes in the movie – in the way the girls argue with the grandmother, and even the way the older women in the family cover for the girls when they sneak out to go to a soccer game. But the end though, the film has put you through an emotional wringer – the film has become a tragic, horror film – and one that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. This is Ergüven’s debut film as a director – and it’s one of the best debuts of the year. In many ways, it is equally as promising as The Virgin Suicides was back in 1999. The films share some similarities that is undeniable. But Ergüven takes her film in startling different directions.