In the breathtaking and bracing French/Turkish feminist drama Mustang the performances from co-writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s striking and fiercely resilient young female cast are inarguably tremendous, and possess extraordinary range, but, for me, it is the assertive direction that is the film’s most exciting trait. You don’t often find a female-directed début film collect accolades as diverse as the Cannes Director’s Fortnight Prize, the Best First Feature Cesar Award, and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. You can be sure, it deserves them. This film will floor you.
Mustang’s pedigree is as impressive as the accomplished production, with producer Charles Gillibert having worked previously with Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Xavier Dolan and Mia Hansen-Love, co-writer Anna Winocour is also an established director – her second feature film Disorder, starring Matthias Schoenaerts, premiered in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2015 – and the composer of the entrancing score Warren Ellis is a veteran Nick Cave collaborator.
On the last day of school in a remote village in northern Turkey, five energetic, free-spirited orphaned teenage sisters (Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu and İlayda Akdoğan) splash around on the local beach with their male classmates. Their innocent games catch the eye of a nosy neighbour, who reports what she considers to be their illicit behaviour to the girls’ over-protective grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and domineering uncle (Ayberk Pekcan, Winter Sleep). The family’s overreaction results in the confiscation of all ‘instruments of corruption’ like phones and computers, and the girls are forced to become prisoners within their own home.
Bars are added to the windows, so rendezvous with boyfriends and admirers are cut off, and they don’t return to school after the summer break. Instead, they must endure daily lessons from neighbourhood elders to prep them and keep them pure for their subsequent arranged marriages. In the bittersweet developments; which depict these young women clinging to the fleeting freedoms of childhood in hopeful and inventive ways, but always flirting with the wrath of the family regime, they find their resilience surrender one at a time to their family’s wishes. The youngest of the siblings Lale (Şensoy), the last in line to be married and the most opposed to the traditions, seeks an escape; gradually building an arsenal of secret weapons, procured following risky descents down the drain-pipe and covert sleuthing, in case the chance presents itself.
The heft of the narrative – the exploration of what its like to be a young woman in a conservative Turkish town, the unity of sisterhood, and subversive efforts to maintain a grasp on independence and seek empowerment while navigating adolescence – is considerable, given the lean runtime. It is so efficient, and confident in its expression. For a film about the preservation of female agency amidst a strict, hypocritical patriarch-ruled household, this film aligns us with their voice; positioning them as a single unit (although clearer focus is directed on Lale as the sisters fall victim to patriarchy) and as the central narrators of this story. We feel their suffocation, understand their frustrations, empathise with their self-destructive urges, and experience their terrifying exploitation and uplifting embraces of freedom every step of the way.
Gorgeously photographed, and briskly edited, Mustang skillfully fuses montage with broader, expansive sequences – and has one of the most incredible cuts in any feature film I have seen this year. As sweet as it is enraging – this very impressive film is firmly in opposition to perverse puritanism, offering a rebellious social critique, and functioning as a dramatic escape-thriller, while spotlighting the arrival of both an exciting new voice in European cinema, and introducing the world to five potential future superstars of the screen. Unforgettable.
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Writer: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Anna Winocour
Actors: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu and İlayda Akdoğan
Country: France, Turkey
Runtime: 94 minutes