“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.