Rating: 4 / 5
The opening scenes of the new Turkish movie Mustang are washed in the warm, languid rays of early summer as we watch a bunch of schoolkids celebrating the last day of school with an impromptu dip in the ocean while still in their uniforms.
It’s obvious the director wants us to enjoy these scenes as much as the teenagers themselves—and this is important. ‘Everything changed in the blink of an eye,’ says our narrator Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest of five orphaned sisters. ‘First there was comfort, and then suddenly everything went up the creek.’
A nosy neighbour is quick to inform their grandmother about their ‘debauched behaviour’ and when the sisters—Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale—arrive home they walk into a maelstrom from which none of them will emerged unscathed.
The grandmother is torn. She has raised the girls to be free, but, as her conservative son and daughter-in-law remind her, the sisters’ behaviour is ‘her fault’, so it’s decided that the older girls are to be married off as soon as possible.
Turkish-born, Paris-based writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven brings to the screen a film brimming with feminist outrage. From the neighbour’s misunderstanding, to the removal of all ‘instruments of corruption’, such as phones and computers, to the endless lessons in housework, to the obsession with their virginity, Ergüven takes every opportunity to take aim at patriarchy.
Yet the film isn’t overly didactic. And this is largely due to the sisters themselves (the girls not only look remarkably similar, but are seamless in their interactions) and the way that Ergüven has chosen to frame them.
‘I wanted to portray these girls like a five-headed monster,’ she says, choosing her words carefully. ‘They were like supernatural, otherworldly creatures for me with their long hair, which was reminiscent of a horse’s mane.’
So while much has been said of the film’s comparison to Sophia Coppola’s 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, the sisters here are much less passive or resigned to their fate. As their home becomes more and more a prison (their uncle literally raises the bars of the gates), they become more creative in their imaginings, such as diving and tumbling into an ocean of their own making (i.e. their bedroom).
The girls derive power from their symbiotic sisterhood and suffer only when these bonds are broken.
Mustang isn’t a perfect film. Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour could have pared back some of the narration and a few of the scenes seem over-directed, but when the film propels towards its inexorable finale it lurches into something quite thrilling.
With a beguiling, yet understated score by Australian musician Warren Ellis, as well as a standout performance from newcomer Gunes Sensoy, there’s much about Mustang that feels just right.
Highlight: unapologetically feminist
Red Flag: adult themes, some coarse language