Film Review: Mustang

A modern-day tale of female rebellion against repression, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s confident debut showcases five stellar young actors and Ergüven as an essential, universal voice in contemporary, female-driven cinema.
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“Now it was our turn to start wearing shit-colored clothes,” says Lâle (Günes Sensoy) in writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s excellent, vitally feminine directorial debut Mustang (co-written by Alice Winocour). Lâle is the youngest of five high-school-aged sisters constrained to live under the increasingly oppressive rules of their family, at the start of an ordinary summer. Bringing up the unflattering, plainly ugly dresses they were forced to put on—the same shapeless kind the adult women of her household wear—she recounts the events that turn their existence into a nightmare. And those clothes just happen to expose the most bearable and symbolic transformation throughout the girls’ systemic punishment–or rather, disguise of their womanhood–after they act in a morally dubious way in the eyes of their family living in a Northern Turkish town in the Black Sea region. Everything spirals down once their sexuality is first perceived by warped minds, then hidden and supposedly prevented from blooming under baggy fabric.

The story begins on the last day of school when the girls–Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lâle–are caught playing in the sea with their male friends. Their innocent physical proximity and engagement raises eyebrows of the town’s busybodies, who tell on them to their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), with whom the girls have lived with since losing their parents. Once their purity and virtue are questioned, the trauma heightens and the drama escalates. First come virginity tests for all the girls, and then goes their freedom (or any device that hints at a sense of that freedom, such as computers). Bars get set around the house, walls are raised, and the family starts a rigorous search for suitors: The sooner the girls marry, the sooner they can live the kind of dignified life expected from model female figures who cook, clean, breed babies, and repeat. In the words of Lâle, their home becomes a “housewife factory.”

Being the youngest, Lâle is also the bravest in testing her boundaries, especially as she gets to watch her sisters either get married with family-arranged prospects or submit to otherwise grim fates. She firmly clutches onto a beloved teacher’s Istanbul address, hoping she’ll be able to flee her imprisonment one day to find her in the big city. And once she meets Yasin during an escape to a women-only soccer game (he offers them a ride to the shuttle bus they just missed), her plan receives the help of an unlikely outsider: a sensitive man in awe of Lâle’s high spirits, innocence and enthusiasm to live on her own terms.

The events depicted in Mustang are set in contemporary times. But the tale’s ramifications are for the ages. On its surface, this is a controlled story about the girls’ repression, along with their fight against (and sometimes, involuntary submission to) male authority. But beneath that surface is a tale that breaks out of its defined geography, period or national customs. Richly filled with metaphors around being born, growing up and walking the Earth as a female, Mustang is for every woman who’s been told “No” at least once by a domineering male or, worse, by the collective masculine entitlement born out of assumed male supremacy.

One slight nitpick about the world of Mustang–which generally (and smartly) steers clear of limiting its feminist outcry to Turkey only–is its rare heavy-handedness about locality. The male-dominant world is so universal, fully realized (watch for masculine symbols such as gunshots) and full of horrors already that it almost becomes a slight distraction to hear certain Turkish politicians’ sexist remarks on TV. Yet, such a raw passion imbues Mustang that missteps like this become instantly forgivable, especially when Lâle decides to put her escape plan into action on her second-oldest sister’s wedding night, with three of her older sisters already gone.

In this heart-racing and very-well directed finale, Mustang becomes a meticulously maintained and intensifying thrill ride with a soaring sense of danger. Ergüven, who has thus far stayed close to the girls’ faces and bodies to capture their visceral world of imprisonment (while somehow avoiding claustrophobia), opens up her angle in the finale to give the viewer a full sense of the scale and scope of the household, as well as the world outside. With dreamlike, otherworldly and oftentimes sun-soaked cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gök and consistently first-rate performances from her young actors, Ergüven ensures that no matter how removed we are from the unimaginable horrors of the siblings’ world, we relate to them through an intimate trance.

Click here for cast and crew information.