Mustang is the story of five sisters; orphans, living with their grandmother and uncle in a large house ‘1,000 miles from Istanbul’. The film begins with the idyllic, wide, blue ocean, filled with the innocent flirtations of schoolchildren, but the viewer’s security is shattered almost immediately when they return home and are beaten in order of age by their grandmother. Sexual curiosity is sin and the girls are quickly imprisoned in what the youngest, Lale, dubs a ‘wife factory.’
The film is undeniably political – daringly so for a directorial debut. Deniz Gamze Ergüven is unapologetic about her desire to address the perceived problems surrounding womanhood in modern day rural Turkey. However, impressively, this doesn’t leave the film lacking in humour and warmth. The viewer cannot help but laugh at Selma’s unashamedly sullen and apathetic face, as she is bargained into a marriage she could not care less about, and Lale’s stuffing of her sister’s fluorescent pink bra is unavoidably charming, as well as funny.
It’s difficult not to compare the girl gang mentality evoked by the five sisters to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (2000). The girls in both films share a sense of innocence that becomes demonised by their elders, who constantly sexualise them, as well as attempting to block them off from popular culture.
Ergüven’s camerawork is testament to her statement that “women are perceived through a filter of sexualisation.” The girls’ bodies are neither sidestepped nor sexualised, but confronted with honesty. The girls are given the agency to decide how they want to be perceived – Lale decides that the baggy, brown dresses they are forced to wear by their grandmother are “the colour of shit,” but that doesn’t stop Sonya ripping in side splits. Lale climbs onto the roof and the camera films from the below – surprisingly, this doesn’t feel voyeuristic or uncomfortable. The girl’s tactile relationships to each other neutralises their bodies, in opposition to their uncle’s insistence on virginity tests.
The film is mercifully un-graphic, despite its confrontational nature. All of the most upsetting scenes take place away from the eyes of the camera. The plot line surrounding the girls’ uncle Erol is uncomfortable, but handled with grace and subtlety. We hear the bang of a gun, but none of the gory aftermath. The only criticism that could be made of the film is of Lale’s voice-over, which is often unnecessary and painfully literal, simply recounting to the viewer exactly what they can see in front of them. However, it’s not hard to see why Mustang was nominated for a Golden Globe. Ergüven has created a beautiful, provocative and playful piece of cinema.