With heads of dark, rich, slightly wild and uncontrollable hair, the five orphaned sisters of Turkish-French film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang — Lale (Güneş Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) — seem to fly free in their rural Turkish village, independent, bright and happy. But this sense of freedom only remains during the brief beginning prelude before their conservative relatives lock the girls away from the world and try to mold them into perfect wives when the girls are (wrongly) accused of indecent play with male classmates on the beach. A story of female empowerment and of being jolted into adulthood, Mustang’s sisterhood is both beautiful and tragic.
We’re guided through the story by Lale, who is the youngest, and in some ways the most visibly rebellious, sister — she seems too young to marry, she enjoys soccer and she sneaks out of her window like she was born to do it. Seeing the world of Mustang through Lale’s eyes is essential. Kept in the house the longest, Lale watches as the walls become higher and the windows become barred. Seeing all of her older sisters quietly married off after awkward sessions of tea and biscuits with suitors and future in-laws, Lale grows increasingly spirited (and desperate) as she looks for ways to sabotage her relatives and ultimately free herself from the confines of her new prison.
It’s also important to note that Lale, in her youth, lacks predefined judgments about groups in society to a certain degree. Though a feminist, progressive piece, the film doesn’t look to condemn a general group, such as men or older generations. Instead, it creates a vivid and fleshed-out world, in which random individuals, like the truck-driver or one of the many aunts (enlisted to mold the girls into wives), help the girls out of kindness. The film refrains creating flat, caricaturized characters though it does seem to roughly divide the cast of characters into the general “good” and “bad.” The same goes for the girls. They are not shown as damsels in distress nor as a band of inseparable and undefeatable girls. They fail to obtain a perfect happy ending in many ways, and each sister deals with the imprisonment and loss in different and relatively extreme ways, giving their character greater dimension.
Young and beautiful, the sisters seem blissfully unaware of their growing attractiveness to society as objectified women and wives rather than actual human beings. The tension in the film largely comes from the clash of unease and worry of the adults about societal expectation and sexuality, and the fierce independence and (relative) innocence of the sisters. The fact that the natural growth and innocent liveliness of the girls are twisted into immoral and dirty behavior is a testament to that. And the girls do their best to fight this, actively disobeying their grandmother and uncle as much as possible in order to stay themselves as much as possible. They sneak out, have premarital sex, spit in drinks and rip and toss restrictive dresses; they do their best to stay ahead of the patriarchal game, succeeding at times and resignedly failing at others.
The film’s aesthetics mirrors this tension in a rather wistful smoke of light; bright colors of the sisters’ outfits versus the drab clothing they are forced to wear, a balance between the energetic movements of the sisters and the silent confines of the house. Certainly, the film has its moments of unnecessary extremity at times, such as the extent to which nearly the entire village oppresses the girls, or the unrealistic way the television catches a clear shot of the girls at the soccer game they’re not supposed to be at. But it doesn’t feel gratuitous. It’s a film that gets your heart racing and makes you earnestly root for the five sisters, from their beautiful moments of courage to the moments filled with empty eyes and dejected frowns. These ultimately come together to give a refreshing and evocative view on the objectification of women, through the eyes of women (rather than men, as it so often tends to be), and to probe into the question of individuality, projected sexuality, and loss through the energy, hope, and determination of Lale and her sisters.
Catherine Hwang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.