Watching Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s French/Turkish film “Mustang”, I could not help but think of the magnificent 2011 Norwegian film “Turn Me On Dammit” in so much as they both center on the complicated lives of teenage girls. Now granted, as the title implies, “Turn Me On Dammit” trends more toward the risqué, like an American teenage sex comedy except far more earnest and nowhere near as dumb, but still lewd and suggestive and sometimes not suggestive at all, while “Mustang” is a movie focused on a family of exceptionally conservative Muslims steadfast in marrying off their five daughters to the proper suitors.
Yet despite these opposite sides of the spectrum, what shone through was how the inner nature of all these girls, whether (seemingly) agnostic or devout Muslim, was not all that different. It can be difficult sometimes through western eyes to see the beliefs of people like this, and it can be dangerous to paint with a broad brush and simply assume that everyone in this kind of culture finds it oppressive, but “Mustang” astutely implies a universality, a desire for all girls growing up not simply to have fun, which is a right all its own, but to lead lives of their choosing.
The film opens with five orphaned sisters, together, almost intertwined, laughing, frolicking with boys on the beach, which only gets them into deep, dark trouble. Even though it hardly seems anything other than teenage innocence to our westernized eyes, to their devout Uncle and Aunt, they may as well be demonized in the eyes of God. They are taken into a room one by one and beaten, and then taken into a home in the country that might be idyllic if not for the bars over windows and gates at doors, a prison stripped of anything “perverted” where they are to be taught how to be women. Of course, how to be women in this context means how to be a wife, and as they eat they listen to scratchy videotapes about being in the service of men. Erol sits there like an army instructor; the girls giggle.
Despite the ominousness of the jail-like features of the home, the film never overloads with ominousness, making it seem as if they are eating gruel and reduced to nothing beyond menial labor. There is still a stunning amount of joy that pulses through the cracks, often when Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), a character drawn far too broadly, like a dictator out of uniform, is out of the house, and in these moments it becomes striking to see how the older women of the house are more than accepting of the sisters’ wants and desires. When they sneak off to a soccer match, in fact, and the aunts see the girls on TV, they go to awesome and comical lengths to protect the secret rather than call them out. They understand the young girls’ plight, even if they willingly further it, bound to tradition too.
Though “Mustang” bears hallmarks with Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”, based on Jeffrey Eugenides novel about five sisters in 1970s Michigan, that film was seen through the eyes of the neighborhood boys, while “Mustang” is seen specifically through the eyes of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the youngest of the quintet. Though these sisters are quite consciously portrayed as a group, and one that is eventually severed, they are also individuals, and Erguven does a stellar job tracing the influence of girl to girl, from the oldest on down to Lale, who watches what becomes of those ahead of her, and doesn’t plot so much as let all this information wash over, and when the moment of truth comes, it registers as both spontaneous and a long time coming, hitting back at her family and, in turn, the whole social order.
And while the title “The Virgin Suicides” gives away the game, “Mustang”, despite its culture, retains more hope, with a denouement that at first seems simply like a lark before suddenly transforming into something very real, like a storybook twist that you’d never allow yourself to believe might actually come true. And what awaits these characters is not some magical land but a place willing to look forward rather than backward, and nurture their true selves, which, when you think about it, to these characters, probably seems pretty magical indeed.