After years of oppression, the 2000s brought an invigorating start to directors of diversity, slightly diluting the male, Euro-American influences in world cinema. In 2015, there were few voices as loud as Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s with her directorial debut, Mustang. The French foreign language Oscar submission had a strong presence in this year’s festival circuit after getting its start in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight program. Ergüven’s exploration of the harmful patriarchal standard in her home country of Turkey exposes the sexual and social repression of five sisters. Always passionate and rarely meandering, Mustang entices its audience with charm in the first act before taking a very serious dive into the fouls of male tyranny.
The central force of Mustang is the five orphaned sisters who strive for independence. Their hearts are set on Western European ideologies of sexuality and freedom, but their grandmother and uncle’s misguided, conservative views lead them to rebel. The protagonist, Lale (Günes Sensoy) is the youngest sister and she is painted as an intelligent and independent girl. In a way, she acts as the leader of the familial tribe; she learns from her sisters’ experiences and thus becomes the most grounded and confident in her given freedoms.
The film opens with the sisters innocently frolicking on the beach with boys of their age. This act is perceived as sexually driven by the girls’ neighbors and grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas). Thereafter, the sisters are taken out of school and put under house arrest by their adoptive uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who runs a tight regime. The girls are raised to be perfect wives and are taught how to perform chores and cook.
In its first act, Mustang balances its oppressive weight with the charm and charisma of the cast of girls who joke, play and fantasize. As the sisters begin to rebel and dismiss their womanly duties Erol restricts them more. Ergüven is as ardent about showing the fragility of the male complex when it is under scrutiny as she is about uncovering the oppressiveness of the patriarchal world the girls live in. Erol is characterized as a mostly absent guardian who feeds off of his own power. He is more of a dictator than family and Ergüven drives this home by taking away his paternal ties and making him the girls’ adoptive uncle rather than a caring, well-intentioned father.
It isn’t by accident that the film’s most effective commentary is made when it is at its lightest and most fun. After men storm the field during a close finals match in soccer, the following game is restricted to an exclusively female crowd. Lale, a soccer enthusiast, convinces her sisters to escape the house and watch the game with her. As the girls’ family watches the match on their television, the grandmother catches them in the stands and interrupts the reception so Erol doesn’t note their disobedience. The scene is exuberant and suspenseful while also showing the rebellious natures of those who are too sheltered. Furthermore, the girls’ grandmother is shown as a less domineering and more supportive force and it even alludes to oppression she experiences from Erol.
However, any lightness ends there as the two older sisters are sent off to be married. Ergüven, who is also the film’s screenwriter, makes a hugely misguided choice by separating the girls so quickly in the second act as the film hugely benefited from their unique personalities and presence. The jarring tonal change is only solidified with melodramatic elevation that is resolved so poorly in a hurried attempt to reach finality.
Unfortunately, Mustang runs out of things to say before the halfway mark and instead of staying in the spirit of the best parts of the film, it attempts to balance tough situational changes that make for flippant and shocking scenes. Ergüven’s passion is her strength, but her writing is unsteady, especially as she ties up the story with movie-ish unrealism. Furthermore, the film relies on a certain heavy-handedness that works for the duration of the film, but just reads as manipulative and apparent after the film reaches its end.
Despite its tumultuous ending, Mustang is an important and rare film that dares to explicitly tackle a repressive system. Although its strongest moments are fleeting and it sometimes feels like a directorial debut, its passion establishes Ergüven as an important voice with the potential to become a feminist filmmaking icon.