Imagine the unimaginable: One moment you’re out enjoying a beautiful, sunny day with your friends and your sisters, and the next, your grandmother is slapping you silly for having inappropriate contact with boys. Everything else snowballs from there: You’re whisked off to the doctor for a virginity test, your personal possessions are shut up in a cupboard (along with the telephones), the doors are kept locked and contractors come to reinforce the house you live in with your family, turning it into an improvised prison-cum-wife factory for you and your untamed siblings.
Such is the stuff of Mustang, the debut film of Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. In a year of great debuts—Appropriate Behavior, The Mend, Slow West, among many—Ergüven’s portrait of five sisters living under the thumb of patriarchy in an isolated Turkish hamlet is the one most likely to sear itself into your memory. It’s a deceptively intimate film with a massive scope, made with so much technique and such a deliberate hand it’s a wonder Ergüven hasn’t been shooting feature films for decades.
Mustang is Ergüven’s neorealist chronicle of femininity bound against its will to draconian gender politics. The film begins with a rough introduction to Ergüven’s five budding young protagonists: Selma (Tu?ba Sunguro?lu), Sonay (?layda Akdo?an), Ece (Elit ??can), Nur (Do?a Do?u?lu) and Lale (Güne? ?ensoy), the youngest of the bunch and the audience’s chief anchor to the narrative. Following innocuous seaside merriments, the children are subject to daily lessons on how to keep house by family and friends, who instruct them on the finer points of preparing dolma, cooking soup and making up the bed. (“There’s nothing you can’t do,” proclaims their aunt during one such lesson—not catching the irony.) Eventually they’re shopped around to potential suitors like cattle at market. All the while, Lale observes, seethes and teaches herself to drive so she can leave forever and make her own way through life.
Mustang’s title makes an obvious and immediate comparison between Ergüven’s quintet and wild horses, unbridled and free to ride the open plains of their world as they choose. What we see throughout Ergüven’s picture, though, are the ongoing efforts of the adults who control that world to keep the girls from engaging in any activity deemed un-ladylike. The goal is to maintain the girls’ matrimonial eligibility, though their female relatives pursue that goal for different reasons than their male relatives. Mustang’s men, represented by the girls’ swine of an uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), are motivated by a need to maintain a gendered status quo. Erol wants to live in a world where his word must be obeyed—or else—but the film’s women often enforce that same status quo out of a desire to keep the girls safe (such as it is). Even when their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) punishes her grandchildren, she does so in hopes that Erol won’t.
Basically: It’s complicated. Grandmother might care about the safety of her grandchildren, but she’s also hellbent on seeing them all married before she kicks the bucket, and so she arranges marriages for four of the five over Mustang’s running time. The success of each ceremony is subject to diminishing returns, though getting more explicit than that would dampen the pleasure of watching the film unfold. Though one thing is made clear roughly halfway through: Reputation is king. A sullied reputation is, for grandmother and the girls’ various aunts, a death sentence. It won’t do for Sonay and Selma to sunbathe within the boundaries of their own residence. It won’t do for Lale to sashay around the house wearing Sonay’s bra, stuffed and padded to near comical effect. School won’t do. Agency won’t do.
Mustang isn’t all gloom and horror, but it comes close. Moments of levity never mask the reality of the girls’ circumstances—around the film’s halfway mark, Selma and Sonay are married off in a joint ceremony that’s incomparably joyful and heartbreaking all at once. Sonay is betrothed to the boy she’s seeing on the sly, and thus sings and dances with her love in the throes of romantic euphoria. Selma, on the other hand, is hitched to a humorless man through an arranged marriage. She looks like she’s taking a funereal march, emptying unattended glasses of raki. (Erol, for his part, happily discharges his pistol in the air. Men and guns are a recurring motif here.) Even a genuinely humorous sequence where the girls sneak off to a soccer match against Erol’s will can’t help but underscore the direness of their circumstances.
The film couples these sobering truths with images so beautiful as to snatch the breath from our lungs. Selma takes another virginity test against her will, this time after her nuptials; she stretches out on the exam table, bedecked in her wedding gown, as the doctor’s light shines beneath the dress. It’s a gorgeous shot, one of many in the arsenal displayed by Ergüven, whose camera has a sense of movement, whether it’s documenting or participating in the action. Most of all, her pen is keen, passing judgment on masculine rule through naked contempt and nuanced critique while allowing her protagonists room to rail against their confinement. We applaud the sisters’ rebelliousness as much as we reel at the abuses they endure. (Akdo?an plays the rebel well, though ?ensoy is the film’s true heroine. She’s like a pint-sized Furiosa in training.)
Ultimately, Ergüven’s singular work draws our ire as easily as our elation. You may liken her film to The Virgin Suicides if you wish—or The Magdalene Sisters, or even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Forget the term “slow burn”—Mustang is a cold burn: From start to finish, the film crackles with gelid fury. Ergüven doesn’t tip the outrage scale into histrionics, but she doesn’t need to. We can sense exactly how pissed off she is behind the lens.
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Writer: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Starring: Güne? ?ensoy, Tu?ba Sunguro?lu, ?layda Akdo?an, Elit ??can, Do?a Do?u?lu
Release Date: November 20, 2015 (NY/LA); January 15, 2016 (Boston)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.