A gem of a film you may have missed this past decade comes in the form of this Oscar-nominated Turkish-French film. Mustang is the debut feature by filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven and follows five young sisters who are forced into arranged marriages after they are caught innocently playing in the sea with male classmates. Told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Mustang shows the struggles of being a woman in an oppressive society, the loss of innocence and the importance of sisterhood. Ergüven’s direction and script is drawn from aspects of her own life and this authenticity and knowledge can certainly be felt. The film uses limited locations which exemplifies the situation the sisters are in. The opening scenes show them leaving school and the freedom on the beach as they play. When their activities are discovered, they are trapped within the family home and forced to practice chores expected from women such as cooking and cleaning. The house is in the middle of nowhere and the girls are allowed limited access into the town due to the shame that they brought to the family. What Ergüven does so well by showing the film from Lale’s perspective is making the space seem bigger than what it is.
All five sisters have their own distinct personalities and outlook on life. As each one is married off one by one from eldest to youngest, we view their differing circumstances. This is mostly noticeable in the wedding scene where we see the two older sisters wed their husbands. Older sister, Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) marries a man of her own choice and dances happily but second oldest sister Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) sits forlorn at the table as she is forced to marry someone she does not care for. There isn’t a heavy focus on either sister as we are viewing this from Lale’s perspective and so the attention flits between various partygoers as well as Lale’s grandmother and Uncle. The writing in this scene is absolutely phenomenal and poignant as it marks the last time the five sisters are altogether and alive. It is in the wedding scene when you realise the seriousness of the plot. It is one thing for underage and arranged marriage to be discussed but it is an entirely different scenario when you see it actually happening. Especially the aftermath scene in which Selma’s bedsheets are inspected for blood the morning after and her in-laws claim she isn’t a virgin. The life-threatening undertones make this one of the terrifying scenes in film. The protagonist of the film, however, comes in the form of the youngest sister Lale. Şensoy brings a fantastic performance that is fearless and powerful. Lale isn’t afraid of what others think nor is she afraid of angering her elders when they are in the wrong. Her natural ability to resist is evident throughout the whole film and the concluding rebellion that she carries out with her sister, Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) only shows how brilliant a character she is.
One of my favourite parts of this film is the score by Warren Ellis who does a stellar job of capturing the sisters’ struggle. It’s a quiet and soft score that grows with intensity as the time to find Lale a husband looms. It’s an underrated score by all accounts and should have brought Ellis an Oscar nomination at least. The score is such an important part of a film that can really enhance the overall experience and I think that Ellis captures the heart of the film and the bond between the sisters. The combination of classic sounds with traditional Turkish music used in the wedding scene blurs the lines between the reality and the movie.
One of the best scenes in this film comes when the sisters sneak out of the house to attend a football match where adult men are banned. They are caught on camera during the match and in a bid to avoid their Uncle from seeing, the Grandmother swiftly turns the power off. It’s a small gesture but in this moment, the audience realises that the Grandmother has her sympathies for the girls and doesn’t want them to get into any further trouble. Ironically, the football match is where the girls feel safe and have fun as they are in a stadium surrounded by fellow women and watching men as a spectacle rather than being a spectacle in a male dominated world themselves. They have regained their power as individuals with individual identities in this scene and it is empowering to watch. Another scene which is a standout for me is the downfall of middle sister, Ece (Elit İşcan) who ends up committing suicide when the pain becomes too much. After waiting to be married off, she is molested by her Uncle but keeps this from her sisters so as not to upset them. The burden becomes overwhelming and she eventually takes her own life. This moment brings the trauma from the outside world into the supposedly “safe” confines of the family home. The brief glimpse that Lale sees of her bloodied sister is all the audience see before we are whisked away for the men to get rid of the body.
Foreign language films always bring the best out of cinema whilst seemingly pushing the envelope in ways that English-language films seem reluctant and scared. Films like Mustang help lift the lid and raise awareness on important issues without caring about their opposing sides feelings. They have a clear point of view and they are films that make the audience think. The year this came out was an extremely strong year in film as you also had the revolutionary Hunagrian Holocaust feature Son of Saul which follows life of a man subject to working the gas chambers. Son of Saul was the film deservingly selected to walk home with the Oscar on awards night but any other year and that would have easily belonged to Mustang. It is a film that brings strength and hope to its female protagonists and also sheds a light on the injustice thrust upon young women in modern society.
What do you think of Mustang? Let me know in the comments below!