After debuting to great acclaim at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s remarkable debut ‘Mustang’ slides into North American screens with Oscar aspirations. Condensed down to comparative movie terms, it could be described as a Turkish twist on ‘The Virgin Suicides’.
However, even that comparison doesn’t quite capture the filmmaker’s accomplishments. Sofia Coppola’s movie was filtered through soft focus nostalgia and gentle hints of fantasy. Ergüven’s film is far more real and contemporary. As a result, it’s deeply frightening, moving and difficult to shake. It’s tough stuff to be sure, but well worth the experience.
The film centers on five young sisters: Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoga). Like many girls their age, they’re inseparable and seem to exist as a single entity. One day while returning from school, the girls play around with some male classmates, climbing on some of their shoulders as part of the fun. A neighbor is shocked by the sight and complains to the uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) who have been caring for them since the death of their parents. The girls are swiftly confined to the house, not even allowed out to attend school. Bars are soon added to the windows and the home becomes a prison. When the girls dare to escape to attend a soccer game, their grandmother responds by marrying them off one-by-one, despite their tender ages. Powerless and having struggled through the sight of a few of her sisters disappearing into deeply unhappy marriages, youngest sister Lale seeks a means of escape.
Though the film certainly flows down bleak, darkly comedic and even somewhat melodramatic passages, Ergüven keeps the material surprisingly grounded at all times. The filmmaker gets remarkably naturalistic performances from her cast, especially the young girls. She has a strong sense of pacing to her storytelling, yet lets each scene unfold with the messiness of life. As the situation slowly grows more desperate, Ergüven lets it play out like a horror film in slow motion. Things get incredibly tense and the world seems impossible to escape. The movie could be reduced to a title like “Patriarchy: A Horror Film” and likely will be by a few undergraduates soon enough.
The director thankfully never paints her morality too strictly in black-and-white. Sure, the uncle character mutates into a monster perhaps a few steps too far in ways that become frustrating. But the grandmother remains intriguingly empathetic. Ergüven and the actress make us believe that she’s very much acting with the girls’ best interests in mind. It’s the cultural and religious traditions bred through generations that are causing harm. While most of the men (especially potential husbands) do indeed come off as domineering and ignorant, the filmmaker provides one genuine unforced marriage for a sister to escape to, as well as a genuinely kind figure who comes into play towards the end. The movie is not so driven with its political themes that it devolves into didacticism. Instead, Ergüven finds a snapshot of unfortunate reality, exaggerated only by the necessities of classical storytelling.
The potency and relevancy of ‘Mustang’ are undeniable. Ergüven has clearly tapped into something special and she shows an incredible skill when working with her actors. The film’s flaws are of a sort easily forgivable from a first time director. Her main villain is a little too pointed and she often loses focus to dwell needlessly on beauty shots of her young actresses lounging.
However, if the movie noticeably gets away from its maker at times, it’s only because the rest works so remarkably well and is crafted so tightly. ‘Mustang’ is certainly a stirring movie worthy of attention, but more than anything else it signals the arrival of a new filmmaking voice whose finest work is probably yet to come.