I think it is rare for filmmakers to really portray children playing authentically, capturing the randomness and abandon in their fun. Mustang, the French film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, captures moments of make-believe and roughhousing between five sisters in a way that infuses the otherwise sad story with the unfettered joy we associate with childhood.
Mustang opens in coastal Turkey, where five sisters are having fun with their male peers. Their activity is interpreted as inappropriate by a neighbor, and in the scandal that follows their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) (who are raising them) decide that they have to take drastic measures to protect the girls’ virtue. They are abruptly pulled from school and kept locked on the grounds of the family home, where they receive instruction in the art of housekeeping and are prepared for arranged marriages. The story is filtered through the eyes of the youngest sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy), who explains that the house became “a factory for wives.” The girls, Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), push back against their captivity as much as they can, finding ways to express their personalities and chase after the joys of youth. Over time, as the walls are built higher and bars are installed on their windows, the girls’ rebellion grows to a desperation to escape.
The heart of Mustang is the chemistry between the five girls and their performances. Although the girls seem impossibly beautiful, with an abundance of wild hair, reminiscent of mustang horses, more captivating is the interaction between the girls. Between the more distressing aspects of the film, and there are plenty, the story is punctuated by moments of tenderness or silliness between the sisters. These scenes resonate with the free-flowing love the girls have for each other, even as they are kept hostage physically. Of the five, Günes Sensoy is especially good. Her knowing looks and frustrated attempts for freedom guide the audience through the story. Her friendship with Osman (Erol Afsin), a local delivery driver, helps move the plot along and provides a release valve for the tension growing in the house.
As much as the plot of Mustang creates a feeling of claustrophobia, the cinematography is beautiful and expansive. As the girls’ world shrinks, sweeping landscape shots serve as reminders for the world outside their domestic prison. Visually, scenes are also filled with small details that illustrate the companionship of the girls and the various threats to their freedom that they have to coexist with, simply because they are girls. Much of the joy of the film stems from respecting and exploring the individuality and the relationships of the girls in a way that is seldom seen in the movies.
The story is character driven, lacking in real action until the final scenes, but it manages to be moving without being cloyingly sweet. Perhaps this achievement is due in part to the timeliness of its message about the girls’ freedom and their rebellion against their bodies and futures being controlled by other people. The tensions that permeate their family create enough drama to compensate for the plodding nature of the plot; as unhappiness seems inevitable for most of the girls, the desire for them to escape grows more urgent for the audience as well.
Although Mustang is stunningly beautiful and full of compelling character development, I couldn’t help but fear that it was based on a portrait of Turkey that isn’t wholly accurate. Truth and stereotypes seem co-mingled in a way that detracts from the power of the story. I rate Mustang 4/5 stars.
Mustang opens at the Cinema Center downtown on February 12th. It was directed and written by Deniz Gamez Ergüven with Alice Winocour. It runs 97 minutes and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture.