A group of young female siblings make a stand against the traditionalism of their Turkish family in this small-scale look at female oppression. The incident which sparks off the depressing chain of events is an innocuous frolic in the sea with fellow male classmates. We see events unfold through the eyes of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), as the girls are put under house arrest and taught how to become good housewives. There are similarities to be drawn between this film and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). The premises are similar but Coppola’s focussed on the neighbourhood boys’ perspective of the Lisbon sisters whereas in Mustang, we see through Lale and watch as the house becomes a ‘wife factory’ and her sisters are married off.
Although the tone is dark, there are moments of happiness as the girls entertain themselves as best they can. But there is the burgeoning realisation that they are fast becoming nubile. The decision to follow the narrative through the youngest sibling means the film maintains some innocence while sparing us the more explicit horrors that the older girls suffer. Şensoy effectively portrays both a youthful innocence and a cunning resilience. The other girls also do well. İlayda Akdoğan and Tuğba Sunguroğlu play Sonay and Selma respectively, the two eldest sisters. Both, however, show different emotions – joy from Sonay as she manages to marry her beau, resignation from Selma as she moves from being trapped in a house to being trapped in an arranged marriage.
The adults in the cast effectively create the oppressive atmosphere that the girls are forced to live in. Nihal Koldaş plays the girls’ grandmother, constantly exasperated and acting wrongfully because of her own misguided sense of love for her orphaned granddaughters. Ayberk Pekcan plays the girls’ uncle Erol, the driving force behind the house lockdown – he does a good job of creating an increasingly violent figure. Both characters are representative of problems that still exist in many cultures: a refusal to accept modernism and feminism.
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven does very well with her first feature film. There are a few flaws – Lale sometimes telling us what we are seeing on-screen – but on the whole, Mustang is an assuredly directed arthouse film. There are plenty of tight close-ups when the girls are in the house, reflecting their confinement. But there are also long lingering shots that bring across a hazy summer aesthetic and a slow pace – this reflects the boredom the girls feel when they are house bound. Warren Ellis’s melancholic score also elevates the range of emotions and images without ever being over-emotive.
This tale of feminine oppression and subsequent uprising contains some genuine shock moments and a gripping narrative revolving around how, or if, the girls will ever manage to be free.