Mustang: A Review
Mustang is an extremely well-balanced film, with it mastering the right amount of light and dark incredibly well, making it not only hard-hitting but also funny and full of moments that resonate with an audience.
Following the lives of five sisters in rural Turkey, Mustang delves into feminism and the harsh reality of womanhood in a brutally patriarchal society. After a perfectly innocent outing to the beach with some male classmates, a drastic chain of repercussions unfold for the sisters. The girls are beaten on their arrival home, accused of acting like ‘whores’ and forced to undergo virginity tests to ensure that they are not ‘soiled.’ Their grandmother strips the house of anything likely to ‘pervert’, confines the sister with extreme security measures and calls in a team of local women to prepare them for their impending arranged marriages.
The narrative is intense and quite disturbing, but the end result is fundamentally optimistic. It is not a surprise that Mustang is tipped to pick up the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year.
Mustang, although set in Turkey and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (who is of Turkish origin) holds a distinctly French view of female liberation and empowerment, with its explicit opposition to any forced covering up.
Ergüven’s treatment of the healthy sexuality of the teenage girls is something to be celebrated. Their bodies are never sexualised, even when wearing very little. Brightly-coloured bikinis, tiny shorts and long loose hairstyles are presented as perfectly natural in contrast to the uncomfortable dresses their grandmother makes them wear. This magnificent dealing with such a sensitive topic is visually stunning and really adds substance to the harrowing plot.
Mustang is in no way anti-Islamic, as the problems the sisters face are not specific to any religion but more cultural and rooted to the demonisation of female sexuality – which still, unfortunately, happens on every continent.
The question that surrounds Mustang is if it is meant as a feminist wake-up call for Turkey. A radio broadcast explaining why women shouldn’t laugh in public is slipped in as a pointed reference to recent political events. Turkey seems to be moving away from progressive secularism, a fact of which writers Ergüven and Alice Winocour are well aware. But, this reference also serves as a reminder that this story does not take place in some distant, unenlightened past, but is happening both in Turkey and around the world right not. The equation of Istanbul, the capital with freedom suggests that this is a rural problem more than a specifically Turkish one, and echoes other works like Chekhov’s Three Sisters where a deep longing for the metropolis is engendered by stagnation and entrapment.
The naturalistic cinematography is at its most beautiful in scenes involving the close bond between the girls. There are frequent shots of them cuddled up together, limbs intertwined to such an extent that they can’t be told apart from each other. These heart-warming scenes radiate an impressive sense of hope that is illuminating to behold.
Ergüven also uses natural sunlight to incredible effect with one memorable shot of the sisters sunbathing in sunlight streaming in through barred windows which effectively sums up the film stylistically.
Mustang doesn’t appear to fit into one particular genre. It has elements that wouldn’t go amiss in a comedy but it also possesses moments of utter tragedy. Nail-bitingly tense escape scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie, co-exist perfectly with domestic scenes of playful sister teasing. A world where men obsess over the state of their nieces’ hymens seems almost comical in place, until the devastating consequences of this mentality comes to light.
Each sisters reacts to their confinement in a totally unique way, allowing the audience to explore multiple reactions to extreme oppression. The double wedding of the two oldest sisters showcases both a happy pairing of teenage sweethearts and a completely loveless arranged marriage.
Heart shattering scenes of utter resignation and hopelessness contrast with the youngest sister Lale’s admirable defiance (played marvellously by Güneş Şensoy).
Mustang cannot be accused of evading complexity in its construction of characters. The audience is able to see how women oppress other women through the figure of the grandmother and her army of conservative female relatives and neighbours. However, she is shown to be equally stifled by the close confinement, throwing windows open in pursuit of fresh air. The male characters are also not simply, one-dimensional oppressors and abusers, but part of the salvation of the central characters.
Although the final resolution is a little strained and implausible, the overall sense of hope Mustang engenders is a necessary counterpoint to the moments of intense darkness elsewhere. The reality is bleak, but the future looks hopeful.