Günes Sensoy, Ayberk Pekcan, Suzanne Marrot
Sweet, poetic Mustang has been called the Turkish Virgin Suicides, and there’s good reason. They’re both female-directed movies about exactly five sisters locked up by their oppressive guardians. In both stories, female sexual awakening is seen as evil.
However, foreign-language Mustang has some differences: a real sense of time and place and a level of compassion. Its Turkish setting – along with the sexual politic, the pro-feminist critique, and the subtle religious despotism – is both beguiling and infuriating. The sisters support each other, come to sexual fruition, and individually negotiate their confinement; they are the real draw here.
On their last day of school, the five siblings decide to walk home with some boys. At the beach, they play innocent but frisky games in the water. A nosy neighbor reports the sisters to their grandmother and uncles, who react by locking the girls up. As the sisters find new ways to escape, the adults imprison them more – keeping them out of school, putting bars on windows, and even sending off the older girls off into arranged marriages.
This French-made film – their entry for best foreign film at the Oscars – has a classic feel. That is both its strength and its limitation. Even with its Eastern European setting, it’s decidedly Western in mentality, with its sly commentary on female bonding and dictatorial patriarchy. Mustang even looks like 1970s French films, like Going Places or Eden and After.
The close-up cinéma vérité – hand-held photography shot in close quarters in their house/prison, dappled with sunlight streaming through windows – gilds the girls’ stories. Their games and secrets help them survive the boredom and unfairness. We witness these sisters come into their own as as burgeoning adults, as sexual beings, and as individuals.
There are a few unanswered questions. What happened to these girls’ parents? (We have a brief indication Mom and Dad are dead, but we don’t know how.) Would the parents have approved of the grandmother’s and uncles’ severe punishments? What does the whole community think of the family’s actions?
Newcomer director Deniz Gamze Ergüven also co-wrote the script with Alice Winocour (Ordinary People). The story is patently politicized to show the damage of trying to control female sexual awakening, while touting feminist power, defiance, and survivability. The filming technique – though affable – isn’t groundbreaking. However, each sister is relatively unique and her love for the others seems organic. Those aspects make the film’s soapboxing almost forgivable.
Besides the Turkish setting, that intimacy is the reason Mustang stands apart from Virgin Suicides. Sofia Coppola’s 1998 take on Jeffrey Eugenides’ famous book was a little cold and distant, not really illuminating the family. Mustang exudes warmth, and it really lets us get to know these girls and their guardians, their culture, their differences, and their similarities.