By: Daniel Reynolds
You’re not supposed to think these girls are sexy, even as the camera frolics with them playing on the beach, or tumbling together in their shared bedrooms. The oldest is 17, tops. They are five long-haired sisters — Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale — out of school for the summer, which means they’ll spend a lot of time together in the house they live in with their grandmother and uncle. This is the insular world of Deniz Gamize Erguven‘s debut feature, Mustang. It’s a house on a hill overlooking the sea, neighbours peering out of windows, and a single road to the rest of the world. Fortunately, the sisters have each other. Unfortunately, they also have everyone else. And while the girls understand their sexuality to varying degrees, due to their relative ages, it is all these others seem to think about.
Mustang takes place in beautiful rural Turkey. There’s mention of Istanbul, the country’s largest city, but it is made to sound very far away. This suggests exactly what you’d expect: there are restrictions in this society, on dress and conduct, and they are applied with great and terrifying firmness — on women especially (or perhaps exclusively). As we are introduced to the five girls, we learn what this means for them. The aforementioned frolicking sets off a chain of events — first, removal of temptations (phones, computer, certain risqué clothing), then locks on the gates, with bars on the windows soon to follow. Their overwhelmed grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) works to exert the proper codes of conduct, to educate the girls in the ways of being a woman (and more importantly a wife). Their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) comes to exude a different kind of menacing attitude. Perhaps it’s not the outside world they have to worry about.
The narrative of the film tracks the results of these restrictions, and the growing despair of having your house turn into a prison. Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the great beauty, takes to sneaking out to meet her beau. Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) becomes more subdued. The others react with a mix of mounting concern as the bonds between them are broken. Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest, who is the most confused and angry, lashes out at every opportunity. What the other girls see as perhaps inevitable, Lale wails against. It’s her timely narration that incredulously marks time in the film. To her credit, Erguven, as writer and director, finds a way to balance and develop the personalities of each girl, to create a sum that is far greater than its parts. This makes the tragedy of the film much more poignant.
While Mustang is thoroughly Turkish, to me it recalled a story set elsewhere: the fairy tale of Rapunzel. In that Brothers Grimm classic, a beautiful girl is locked away in a tower (coincidentally, just as she’s edging towards womanhood) by a witch. You know the story from there: a prince asks her to let down her hair, climbs up, falls in love. When Rapunzel gets pregnant, the witch casts her out into the wilderness. The prince ends up blind. There’s a happy ending though. They reunite in the woods, her tears restore his sight and, hey, he’s a prince! They live happily ever after. It was hard to press this idea from my mind as Mustang cut to the increasingly dire machinations of uncle Erol and his desire to keep his nieces pure. The film’s characters are obsessed with this idea and at times it feels like the whole of Turkish society is driven by it. The girls, who up until the film’s beginning, were just that — girls — are suddenly cast as future brides, wives or, worse, harlots. There is no other way. Either play along with the arranged marriages and the presumed rituals of passage into womanhood, or be crushed by it. It also doesn’t feel like a coincidence that both brides and corpses are draped in white. (It also can’t be chance, by the way, that the girls all have long, flowing locks.)
The strength and joy of Mustang, drawn in stark relief to the tension of the film’s second half, is the bond of the sisters. The film is filled with scenes of natural fun, of kids playing with each other and just enjoying the shared energy. Erguven lets these scenes play out loosely, framed by the gorgeous sun of the Turkish coast and the surrounding landscape always present in the house’s windows. The joy here is infectious. The score, which pairs some borrowed music from Warren Ellis and Nick Cave and classical Turkish tunes, suits the mood even as it deepens and darkens. To my mind, Mustang was the runner-up to Son of Saul for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and why not? It’s got an urgent (albeit semi-familiar) story and builds to a satisfying conclusion. Is it a happy ending? Well, this isn’t a fairy tale, there is no prince at the end — in fact, the girls are actively running away from most of the male characters in the film. No, that’s where Mustang is different. You aren’t supposed to think these girls are sexy, because they do not need your gaze. Their strength, and the film’s, is found exclusively in something else: sisterhood.