Oscar-nominated this week for best foreign film, the terrific Mustang sometimes feels like a Turkish variation on The Virgin Suicides — only without director Sofia Coppola’s poetic touch, the great 1970s vibe and soundtrack, and the recognizable American, suburban locale. Oh, and also all those suicides.
There’s another big difference. Coppola’s film, based on Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, gave us a third-person chorus of teenage boys, trying to decipher the inner lives and motivations of the five sequestered Lisbon sisters from the outside-in. Mustang gives us a first-person perspective from the inside-out.
“It’s like everything changed in the blink of an eye,” Lale (Günes Sensoy), the youngest of five sisters, explains to us in voiceover at the film’s start. “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.”
Her words suggest that some kind of disaster befalls the family. That’s not exactly true. Two things, however, kick in at the same time, one universal and one very specific: puberty and cultural/religious expectations.
The girls, whose parents died a decade earlier, live in a coastal village in northern Turkey, raised by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and surly Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). On the last day of school, fully dressed in their uniforms, the sisters play in the surf with male classmates (also fully dressed). They splash each other and ride on the boys’ shoulders. It’s completely innocent. Not, however, to a local busybody who spots the kids and blows the situation into a neighborhood scandal.
Arriving home, the girls are smacked around by their granny, who accuses them of “rubbing your parts on boys’ necks.” While other girls get to enjoy their summertime outdoors, the sisters find themselves locked inside the house. They become experts quickly, though, at sneaking out. The eldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) shimmies down the drainpipe to meet her boyfriend. And Lale conspires to smuggle all five of them to a local soccer match. (It’s a rare game designated for female fans only; in this Muslim world, genders don’t mingle.)
These girls aren’t pushovers. But they’re helpless to resist the patriarchal marriage machine that soon gears up in their living room. Granny and Uncle Erol start inviting entire families with eligible adult (or nearly adult) sons to inspect the girls, from oldest to youngest. Sonay lobbies to be paired with her beloved. The second oldest isn’t so lucky, and gets matched to a guy who can barely look at her.
Lale observes these negotiations with a wary eye. “The house became a wife factory that we never came out of,” she says. Though the sisters are contained first by locked doors, then gates, then bars welded on the windows, the movie (unlike, say, Room) doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, in her impressive feature film debut, keeps the pace moving forward and finds humor despite the darkening circumstances.
Even more than the recent Italian film The Wonders, Mustang is a paean to the charged grace of young women. It captures the collective power of pre- and adolescent girls — while reminding us of the chaos, fear, lust and panic they can inspire in boys their age. And in some of the adults snagged in their orbit.
Mustang. With Günes Sensoy, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. In Turkish with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.