Adaptation is exactly what one would expect the cinematic brainchild of director Spike Jonze, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and producer Jonathan Demme to be like; in other words, it is entirely as surreal, unexpected, and grimly hilarious as one could hope for. Watching for the first time now, over a decade since its original release, it is easy to catch an occasional glimpse of the tones, impressions, and feelings that will impact equally painful and enchanting movies like Her (2013) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Like a contemporary American take on the sentiments of 8 ½ (1963), Federico Fellini’s famous meta-narrative about his own writer’s block and personal crises, Adaptation confronts these creative issues and the self-perpetuated doubts which plague each creator’s sense of worth and progress—a trope which has largely been represented in onscreen depictions of the male experience and perspective, thus far, continually perpetuated by variations of Fellini’s Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), whose self-loathing, self-pity, and sexual insecurity are echoed in Mad Men’s Don Draper (2007-2015, dir. Matthew Weiner; played by Jon Hamm), Birdman’s Riggan Thompson (2014, dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu; played by Michael Keaton), and Nicolas Cage’s interpretation of Charlie Kaufman, the character.
Although Kaufman’s self-deprecating, self-reflexive vision of his own creative crisis doesn’t exactly add anything new to that particular conversation, these familiar themes and archetypes come into hyper-focus and rise to extreme, disorienting heights within the labyrinthine psychology that maps the film’s narrative. With the inclusion of author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the tradition of depicting creative crises from the masculine point of view is slightly disrupted, however, and we at least see that the same artistic and personal agony takes place within male and female characters, and receive some form of (unfortunately, necessary) affirmation that their crises have nothing to do with their gender. Susan’s longing to start over, to be a baby and be new again, resonates with equally poignant force and pain as Charlie’s constant panic, “Do I have an original thought in my head?” and both reach a truth closer to the core of human nature than the messy memories of failed relationships and sexual anxiety which so often coincide with these types of tormented protagonists.
As the film reminds us, the one constant hope we all have in the end for coping with our unique inner turmoil is one another’s company—in its special Kaufman-Jonze-Demme way, however, we leave wary of depending too much on those outside ourselves, as the ruthless absurdity of the world has a habit of surprising us with loss and absence that may feel undeserved. Like the title suggests, though, we find it is often in such moments of loss and despair and total loneliness that we learn to be kinder and more forgiving of ourselves, adapting more and more to the world’s caprice and the person it has made of us.
“It’s like in that movie we watched the other night,” my friend said suddenly, three beers into Wednesday night trivia at Moynihan’s. “Like those girls—they were trapped, like really trapped. And they kept looking for ways to get out.” This was the extent of our discussion of Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (at least, as far as I remember), but I find it significant that the film continued to crop up in the intoxicated thoughts of a straight male viewer who had, at the time of screening, insisted that he likely wouldn’t stay through the whole thing.
Ergüven’s debut feature film—named for the horse or the car I do not know, nor do I think it matters—is one of those modern dystopian fairy tales, the tragedy of which does not fully strike until you realize that this is how it really is for some people, in some places. The notion that Mustang’s story is not far from the truth for some modern girls of the world is highly unsettling, but the five sisters at its center infuse the film with an empowering sense of resistance and hope for its subjects and audience. Despite the oppressive patriarchal expectations of women in the film’s Turkish setting (a society where arranged marriages and virginity tests are still the norm), the warm light and unabashedly intimate gaze of the camera captures the ethereal beauty and power of the five sisters. Their long hair and the skin of their limbs and torsos make them an unnatural wonder to others in their conservative world, with the near-constant touching of one another enhancing our understanding of these five girls as a whole, unruly entity—a five-headed monster, as Ergüven stated in one interview.
Despite the initial unity of the girls, though, the narrative ultimately rests on the shoulders of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the youngest of the sisters, as she observes in each of her elder siblings another potential outcome of being a woman in Turkish society. As the events of the film unfold and her family grows smaller and smaller, Lale sees for herself only possibilities of marriage—will it be blissful and loving, or reluctant and agonizing?—or death. And although Lale herself may be too rebellious to recognize it yet, audiences see another potential model of life as a Turkish woman in the orphaned sisters’ grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), a conflicted matriarchal beam in the film’s bleak depiction of modern female oppression. The generational expectations and inherent societal emphasis on the future of these young women is at the heart of Ergüven’s film—a future which Lale inspires viewers to disrupt and rectify when she abandons the fear of hypotheticals and resolves to act then and there, mirroring Ergüven’s beautifully shot and directed plea for us to act here and now.