Mustang is a French-Turkish coming-of-age film directed and co-written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. It has picked up various awards at festivals and awards shows over the last year and is finally released in the UK this weekend.
The story follows five orphan girls who live with their grandmother and uncle in a remote Turkish village. When seen innocently playing with boys on the beach their scandalized conservative guardians confine them to the home and begin arranging forced marriages for each of them.
The best thing about the film is seeing how it draws out the gender politics inherent in the material and in this regard the film does not disappoint. The film is multi-layered in this regard as the oppression of the five sisters and their home-life acts as a microcosm not just for Turkish patriarchy but for all isolated, hypocritical and ignorant peoples that attempt to tame and control women.
What is most disconcerting about the story is not just what the girls' guardians do to them – taking them out of school, confining them to the house and forcing conservative housewife roles upon them – but how it's accepted by those around them. It's all instigated when a family-friend informs their grandmother of what she's seen (ultimately nothing more than innocuous flirting), families from the area come to bid for the sisters' marriage to their sons to the suitors themselves who seem to have no problem being paired with painfully young, - not to mention unwilling - girls.
But Ergüven, here impressively directing her first feature film, has not made a cold, didactic plea for gender parity – there's real warmth and humanity present too. This is mostly provided by the five sisters – almost all non-professional actors – who burst at the seams with life and loyalty to each other despite their circumstances and often deliver the much needed comedic relief. They genuinely feel like real-life sisters whose intimacy with one another is warmly familiar and offers hope in the face of such terrible adversary. The standout, though, has to be the youngest of the five; Lale. She is brimming with energy and resistance and is simply a joy to watch, stealing every scene she's in.
Formally the film is not much to shout home about but the cinematography has a hazy, fairy-tale quality which furthers this sense of compassion for the characters and the subtle, synth-led soundtrack simultaneously implies impending danger and innocence to great effect. There are also a number of standout sequences such as the protracted opening which dramatically shifts gears from playful to violent, a thoroughly joyous trip to a women's only football match (which is based on a real event) and the incredibly tense climax.
Unfortunately Mustang suffers from being overly familiar as we've seen similar stories told time and time again and it becomes predictable because of this. Although the film is not black and white – the friendly delivery man and the aunt who helps cover up the girls' football trip show that not everyone here is that backwards and cold – I would have preferred a little more cultural depth or, indeed, width. Sometimes the film seems content to focus on slightly repetitive scenes of the girls at home instead of delving deeper into the wider societal issues at play. On that note the girls themselves can be somewhat interchangeable and I sometimes found myself wondering which was which.
As a result of these issues the film lags in places and I sadly found myself checking my watch two-thirds of the way through. There is also an added element to the uncles character that's introduced quite late into the film which I won't spoil here but it's one which felt brushed over and unnecessary. The film already had enough on it's plate without tackling that issue and ultimately it muddied the thematic waters. Finally the ending, which again I won't explain, felt more melodramatic than hopeful and I would have preferred either a sobering or more subtly, complicated positive farewell to these characters.
Mustang is a film was a strong message but tender touch which is hampered by a overly familiar set-up some narrative shortcomings. I'm going to give it a 7/10 and would recommend it to fans of The Virgin Suicides, Room, Wadjda and The House of Bernarda Alba.
Have you seen Mustang and if so what did you think of it? As always, let me know in the comments below and make sure to subscribe for more reviews coming soon!