Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s ‘Mustang’ is a must-see. It is the quintessential family drama and Ergüven’s first feature-length, which is remarkable really. This coruscating portrayal of adolescence and womanhood in rural Turkey is untarnished and soul-stirring, owing a lot to the exceptional performances from the cast and the silk-smooth cinematography shot by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok.
Mustang is the prime example of one of those films that you only need to watch the once and you’ll never forget a single second of it. That’s not to discourage you from watching it over and over again, of course. What I’m saying is that even with one viewing it would seem impossible for this one to sail away from memory’s stream.
The school bell rings and sisters Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay say farewell to their teacher who is set to move to Istanbul. Term is over and the group of adolescents run along the beach and innocently play in the waves in the company of some of the local boys. However, a neighbour sees this, misinterprets the incident and reports back to the sisters’ grandmother. She is a strong authoritative figure in the film who keeps conservative values intact within the household and beats the sisters one by one for “teasing the boys” at the beach. This scene shows us how inseparable the girls are, particularly once their hard-skinned uncle, Erol, steps in and keeps them from leaving the household. All five coalesce and pull through it together but sadly this wears down. In Mustang we see that tradition cannot be broken. For as long as tradition is in place the sisterly ties are severed further and further, notably when Sonay and Selma, the eldest of the group, are married off to men within the local community. The arranged marriages create a distance between the girls but their love remains and this is truer than ever once tragedy strikes, and unexpectedly so. Dark undertones loom and eventually rise to the surface and it’s honestly heartbreaking.
The cinematography often frames the girls gazing out at the green outdoors behind barred windows and the theme of imprisonment is brought to the forefront. You wouldn’t necessarily pin the 1979 classic Escape From Alcatraz as a filmic reference but Ergüven used it as a means of inspiration for Mustang. We can often hear bushes rustling in the breeze and an army of birds singing in the soundscape whilst we are stuck indoors with the sisters. Warren Ellis’ sorrowing piano score heightens all of the emotions that come into play as if it serves as an instrumental voiceover or an avenue for the sisters to reach out to us individually. At least it feels that way anyway.
Lale, the youngest of the siblings, is instantly likeable and a symbol of rebellion but for the right reasons. Ergüven locks us into her perspective for most of the film and as her older sisters are slowly married off it is increasingly painful to watch. Unlike the other four, Lale is the only sibling who does allow herself to be bound to tradition and uses her imprisonment, and the walls that confine her, as a weapon to fight back. Brave doesn’t cover it. What’s so special about Mustang is that Ergüven handles multiple themes within the film with such care and thought. Beneath the gloom are hilarious moments that have you cackle with laughter and this is a lovely element to the film. Whether it’s the girls throwing their dresses out of the window, or when the sisters dish out names like “pancake chest” to one another, you find yourself chuckling hard.
Nominated for best foreign language film last year at the Oscars and having scooped four César awards in France, Mustang is unmissable and an unimpeachable piece of work. We’ve ranked it as our favourite of 2016 so far which is a big statement indeed.
Mustang is out in cinemas now and also available on Curzon Home.