Soon after people began comparing the Turkish (by way of France) Mustang to The Virgin Suicides they were promptly disputed on the grounds that, aside from their mutual focus on the stifled sexuality of a team of young sisters, there was little similarity. What I find more intriguing is the release of Mustang alongside Todd Haynes’ 1950s-set melodrama Carol. While, again, little is shared beyond women at the forefront, the game of compare-and-contrast can be entertained in how both films address forbidden womanhood. Generational gaps create tension out of expectations: Carol’s Terese, played by Rooney Mara, only begins to experience the hardships of falling in love with a woman in a time where Western patriarchy disapproves. When the film is over, we know the times will change, and the still-dominant patriarchy will be just a touch less oppressive. With Mustang, Westerners will see how, elsewhere, the oppression is still perpetuated by older, gruffer leaders in matters we take for granted: dressing suggestively, marriage by choice, owning a phone. All the while, women are expected to comply. Through the wide eyes of the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), we see a man-made prison that must be challenged, even if met with resistance. Even after Ergüven’s film ends on a happy note, after all the estrangement and tragedy, we’re left uncertain about whether all will be well.
In a year where the highest-profile female-centric films are directed by men, Mustang is a refreshing change. Ergüven sculpted the film out of her own experiences as a young girl in Turkey: the first “vulgarity” of the film — an innocent game of girls wrestling while perched upon boys’ shoulders — is from memory, but the sisters’ aggro reaction to their punishment is fiction (“the characters in the film voiced the courage that we wished we had,” Ergüven says). Content aside, the most compelling display of Ergüven’s affection for these girls (all so similar in appearance you’d think they were a living chart of pubescent aging) is in her camera work. The loose shake suggests a POV from a silent, unseen sister chronicling her own home life. Later, when the girls make a great escape to a rare “women-only” soccer match, Ergüven shoots from below their feet, placing these young women on a pedestal; this is an image of victory and bravery. Even an otherwise unimportant shot from behind a hospital information desk, where a female nurse sits, exalts the female gaze. Even in the most suspenseful and harrowing moments, Mustang is presented matter-of-factly, without manipulation. It’s as though Ergüven wants the audience to witness the proceedings as she has.
These proceedings, I imagine, were witnessed fearfully, as scenes depicting what many would call “rites of passage” are edited suspensefully, often without music. When one sister has sex in the car while their villainous uncle is in the store, we are meant to be scared. We know what the consequences are. It won’t be a simple slap on the wrist. Whatever liberties they have left will be fewer and fewer. The opening narration — “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit” — recurred in my mind during the rest of the film, as every good, snapshot-ready moment promises subsequent doom. But while this dread lurks beneath the surface, Ergüven has no interest in the gritty. Mustang seeks the enjoyment in little moments — the tearing of a skirt, chewing homemade gum — and in those closest to you. The sisters are inseparable, as though one organism, visually realized by a shot mimicking Persona. The bright, sunkissed view of middle-class life is Ergüven attempting to overturn harsh stereotypes of Turkey. Though she may be far away from it, she clearly sees it as a place where one has dreams of making it out alive. It is not ideal, but it’s a start.