All of the actresses that play the sisters in Mustang are novices, yet they give fine performances.
There is a certain type of person, particularly elite college activists of the type seen and often vilified for their protests against injustices both real and imagined, that uses the word ‘patriarchy’ with regard to American society. The patriarchy may reveal itself through the fact that so few women serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or through action as simple as men spreading their legs too wide on the subway. When applied to our culture, patriarchy theory is a blend of fact and fiction, as demonstrated by the Turkish film Mustang, an excellent exploration of how the lives of women in some societies are under the complete control of the men who dominate them.
Mustang is this year’s entry by France for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, but there may be few films less French than this tale of five young sisters who live in a small Turkish village. The film’s director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is herself of Turkish descent although she studied film in France and based her screenplay on events of her own youth. The film centers around a group of orphaned sisters whose life is relatively free until they are caught by neighbors frolicking with their male classmates in a local pond. None of their behavior would raise eyebrows among even the most prudish Americans, but it is enough to guarantee that all five are removed from school and essentially imprisoned in their family home under the care of their uncle.
The story of a group of wayward sisters mixed with tragedy recalls Sofia Coppola’s feature debut as a director, The Virgin Suicides. Mustang is an equally impressive debut, perhaps even more so because Ergüven did not have the benefit of one of cinema’s greatest talents to guide her or of professional actresses to anchor the film. All five of the sisters in Ergüven’s film are novices, yet each of them are fine, particularly Günes Sensoy as the tomboyish sister who dominates much of the film. It is impossible to determine whether credit should go to the natural ability of the actresses or the director’s skill in shaping the performances, but it does not matter when the final result is so successful.
One of the most impressive aspects of Mustang is that it portrays the ordeal of the young girls as unsettlingly ordinary. The girls may have had a modern upbringing until they are locked away, but it is only seen as natural for them to be secluded once they begin displaying any hint of sexuality. It is not just the decree of their uncle, but also assented to by the women of the family such as their grandmother. Everyone is complicit, even if the women of the family make valiant attempts to shield the girls for punishment for their transgressions.
Eventually, the girls must be matched in arranged marriages, substituting the absolute power of their uncle for the absolute power of their intended husbands, whom they do not choose. Two recent films, one a documentary (Meet the Patels) and the other one fictional (Learning to Drive) have portrayed arranged marriages as a somewhat sensible accommodation, under the assumption that the families often are better judges of whether two people will be compatible than the spouses themselves. Mustang is a necessary corrective to that notion, demonstrating that it is almost always a decision that removes all sense of agency from the parties, particularly the women who are given little other option. It is when the arranged marriages begin that Mustang reaches the level of tragedy for some of the sisters.
Mustang is an impressive debut for Ergüven that makes a clear statement about the oppression of women in some parts of Turkish culture while still maintaining a hopeful tone amidst the suffering the girls endure. It is an outstanding feature debut for Deniz Gamze Ergüven and a moving telling of the plight that women face even in the modern world.
Cohen Media Group
Now in theaters
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