Mustang, the first feature-length film from Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, at first glance resembles Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, set on the coast of rural Turkey instead of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Both films feature five sisters (Virgin’s all-American blondes traded for Mustang’s Middle Eastern brunettes) whose social isolation and enforced confinement incite rebellions.
2015 also saw the release of Room, starring Brie Larson, and the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Both feature young women who find their way to freedom after being held physically and psychologically captive by men. Why is this theme, one in which a man maintains control over women through some form of containment, a recurring one?
During the Q&A after a recent screening of her film in Los Angeles, Ergüven responded to a comment from the moderator by saying, “How frightening girls and women could be for men: they are so free, so exuberant, so wild. There's something that you can't hold, that you can't control. It's so much easier to constrain women than make them fall in love with you.”
Men use rage to intimidate and dominate whereas female rage, when it is unleashed, is a force of resistance. At least that’s how Lale (played by Günes Sensoy), the youngest sister in Ergüven's film, begins to challenge the fate her family has in store for her.
The five orphaned sisters in Mustang live with their grandmother and uncle high up in the hill country. Their house overlooks the sea, and it’s in the waves on the shoreline below that the plot is set in motion. After school, the girls, whose approximate age range runs from Lale’s nine to the eldest at seventeen, walk home with a few boys their age. It’s hot out and they all decide to swim and play in the waves, fully-clothed in their uniforms. Ergüven captures the joy in that moment of youthful freedom. When the sisters’ purity is questioned for this expression of adolescent exuberance, they’re punished and locked inside the house like princesses in a fairy tale.
The director was deliberate in choosing this remote setting, “The fact that they were in this house, which is completely looking over the immensity of the sea, which is just in front of them, was extremely important. We could feel the freedom at the tip of their fingers, just behind those walls.”
This imprisonment coincides with the first signs of their sexuality, and the only acceptable destination for that sexuality is arranged marriage. Otherwise, the girls' virginity is at risk. Ergüven elaborated on this point, saying, “It's impossible for a girl not to be a virgin. It still exists very widely, this idea of the importance of the virginity of a woman at the time of her marriage.”
Marriage is the raison d’être of the American rom-com. In contrast, the tragedy of Mustang is in watching the sisters separated from each other, trading one prison for another. Seeing Lale’s determination to escape the strictures of a patriarchal society brings to mind another radical female lead: Minnie from this summer’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. In that film, the character owns and enjoys her newfound sexuality. Like Minnie, Lale represents a new generation of girls who refuse to be punished for feeling joy. With this film, Ergüven creates a moving leap forward in the evolution of female self-determination.