Fittingly compared to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, The 400 Blows and even The Great Escape, Mustang is heavily concerned with the empowerment and emancipation of the female body and female sexuality. The Cannes winner and Oscar and Golden Globe nominated, Turkish-French co-production tells the tale of the five orphaned sisters Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, during the midst of the intense heat of the Turkish summer. Directed by first timer Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-written by Alice Winocour (Disorder), the film explores the stifling effect of patriarchy to captivating effect.
The inciting incident that leads to the girls’ imprisonment is completely innocent in nature but deemed ‘inappropriate’ by a somewhat hypocritical and archaic older generation. Ergüven’s free moving and liberated handheld camerawork capturing the girls at the happiest they could be – to swiftly bring the unjust consequences down in the first five minutes, the community displaying panic at girls acting in control of their bodies.
And so it is decided that each of the girls will be locked and supervised in the house, then married off in arranged partnerships. The values of their community are extremely backwards, the sisters treated like prizes to be passed on to another family.
The girls are going through changes, and, for lack of a better phrase, blossoming sexuality that their adult peers are shown to fear – in this pocket of Turkey, a woman’s control over her body is taken away from her at every turn. That said, not all of this older generation is viewed with utter contempt – the girls’ grandmother and aunts showing great compassion for the orphaned girls at times; despite their extremely conservative viewpoints they act as an ally to the sisters at different points where they circumvent each new rule and countermeasure set by their uncle.
For much of Mustang the sisters operate as a singular organism, indistinguishable from each other – often appearing in a pack or often just a large tangle of limbs and hair. The film accentuates this inseparability to great effect, each later struggling to cope emotionally as more of its parts are separated from the body by patriarchal oppression.
Much like Alien’s treatment of its character, Winocour and Ergüven very tragically whittle down the seemingly inseparable group of girls until the true protagonist of the film is made absolutely clear.
As they continue to refuse to conform, their imprisonment becomes increasingly severe – but there’s plenty of joy to be found in the rebellion (a lot of stuff is thrown out of windows). Finding plenty of humour in the girls’ closeness and early escape attempts, Ergüven does well to not let the tone become overly dour; slick editing and great dialogue enhancing the moments outside confinement. This said, the film doesn’t shy away from some extremely dark, sickening moments; the extremity of the protagonists’ situation never forgotten.
Engagements are like death sentences, the noose tightening around each of the girls until the very end of the film. The weddings are terrifying, surreal and deeply impersonal affairs – the men appear as thugs and animals, about a fifth of them randomly firing guns in the air this is not a flattering portrayal of arranged marriage.
As far as soundtracks go, Mustang is a very quiet film. Mostly giving way to dialogue, diegetic sound and traditional music the non-intrusive music allows the film to explore its themes without seeming overly grandiose, and only enhances the atmosphere. Warren Ellis (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds!)’s score is incredibly moving and saved to the last opportunity, adding extra punch to the film’s biggest moments.
In Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven has created something provocative, heartfelt, and powerful. Utterly concerned with the oppression and emancipation both of the female body, the two filmmakers have made an involving and scathing inditement of arranged marriage, conservatism and fundamentalism – pointing out the potential for exploitment and sexism within this institution. At once hilarious and horrifying, Mustang is one of the strongest debut films of recent years, and among the best of 2016 so far.
Dir: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Scr: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Cast: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afshin
Prd: Charles Gillibert
DOP: David Chizallet, Ersin Gok
Music: Warren Ellis
Run Time: 97 Mins
Mustang is out in cinemas and on Curzon On Demand now.