Life can change in the blink of an eye.
That this all-too-knowing sage observation of the business of living is made at the start of Mustang, written (with Alice Winocour) and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven isn’t necessarily a surprise; what does surprise is how all the wistfulness and longing implicit in that phrase is channelled by far too young a girl Lale (Güneş Şensoy) who by rights should know nothing about the harsh, disappointing realities of life.
It is emblematic of the observational authenticity and emotional honesty built into this endlessly immersive, deeply impacting and heartfelt film that tells the story of five close, highly-spirited orphaned young women who find their carefree world tipped on its head when some innocent post-end of school term fun in the surf with some boys earns the harsh opprobrium of every socially-conservative neighbourhood busybody within a 10 kilometre radius.
Barely have the still-giggling, joyfully garrulous girls arrived home than their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), bearing the weight of having raised them after the death of their parents a decade previous and under pressure from militantly regressive son Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) to rein them in, punishes them harshly for what are simply the fun antics of schoolgirls letting off some steam.
Though they band together, as always, to fight this unexpectedly oppressive turn of events, the young women who long for all the things in a future life that women of their age do from cosmopolitan lifestyles, fulfilling careers and freely-chosen partners, they soon find bars and gates on the doors and windows, their computers, phones, make-up and even a stray postcard of an exotic locale seized, and their home turned into what Lale dismissively calls a “wife factory”.
The change is swift and absolute, and with no school to attend, for what is learning when the only goal in life it seems is finding a good husband, the now conservatively attired fivesome, all sporting the shapeless “shit-coloured dresses” that pass for fashion for the religiously and socially-conservative, the girls have no choice but to bow down to the new regime or fight it in any way they can.
The reality as Lale and her four sisters – Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan) and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) – discover is an unpalatable and wholly unsatisfying mic of both.
For every mark of defiance such as sneaking out to attend a women-only soccer match one day or catching up with a boyfriend (Ekin played by Enes Sürüm, who ends up as her all too young husband), there are endless cooking lessons in the kitchen, injunctions to be a good and chaste wife (for that is the best these women can aspire to assures their unsmiling uncle Erol) and the ever-shrinking expectations of a life suddenly curtailed.
It’s a situation that suits none of the devoted sisters, and yet in due course Selma and Sonay are married off – Sonay’s only exercise of her free will is the fact that she is allowed to marry her sweetheart Ekin) – and preparations are made, with almost panicked haste, to send Ece and Nur down the same path.
It’s at this point that Lale, who has been a firebrand rebel from the word go – she sets fire to a chair in one of the first scenes of the film on the basis that her anus has touched it and made it unclean, taking her grandmother’s unreasoned assertions about the girls’ private parts touching boys’ necks in the surf to their amusingly illogical extreme – steps in, determined to reclaim some sort of freedom to live the lives they want.
That she to do this at such a young age – she is not yet in her teens but is already wise enough to see where her imprisonment is leading and it’s nowhere she particularly wants to go – speaks to the enormous forces assembled against these modern young women who find themselves staring down a 1950s (or worse) social-imperative so conservative that it strangles their hopes and dreams before they have been barely uttered.
And that is the great, moving strength of Mustang, a film that refuses to accept for a moment that the only place a woman can find herself is barefoot and pregnant under the tutelage of her husband; it doesn’t necessarily belittle being a wife and mother so much as assert, with power and conviction and a beguiling mix of humour and intense depth of feeling, that this cannot be the only choice available to modern, talented and smartly engaging young women.
Far from being a bitter, railing polemic, Mustang lets the lives of these remarkable young women forcefully convey its message with power, dignity and emotional truth, underlining with a quietly-spoken but no less persuasive for that narrative that no woman should have her right to choose taken from her.
In fact, when that happens, not only are the women in question all the poorer for it but so is society as a whole with everyone doing little more than move through their socially-expected machinations, with censorious opprobrium handed down to those who fail to tow the “party line”.
It belittles and robs everyone but most especially the women forced to give up their hopes and dreams, and Lale for one, along with an easily-persuaded Nur, isn’t about to lose that right to choose.
It is Lale who acts as the lightning rod for the understandable disaffection felt by all the sisters, and as they navigate arranged marriages, and suffocatingly shrunk down lives, Deniz Gamze Ergüven movingly conveys her increased frustration and the militant panic as losing any control over her life, and in ways so sudden and complete that she doesn’t even have a chance to prepare.
Her solution to the predicament faced by Nur and herself when they are the last remaining sisters at home is extreme in its own ways but reflects her increasing desperation to escape the yoke forced on them by her loving but forced-to-act grandmother and her arch-conservative uncle Erol who is as big a hypocrite as you’d expect a loudly protesting religious conservative to be.
You cannot walk away from Mustang unmoved and unchanged – the lives of these impassioned young sisters are too compelling, too finely and beautifully etched to leave you unaffected and too expertly acted (four of the five actors playing the sisters were first timers, making their performances all the more impressive), not to mention emblematic of our times and the countervailing forces affecting young women today, for the film to not affect you profoundly in some way.
This profoundly touching film is a rallying cry for young women everywhere to fight for the right to choose, to never let that right be usurped or misused, and to remember that no force in society is so great that some determined resistance cannot yield some surprising outcomes, and if you’re lucky, a reclaiming of your right to live the life you want and deserve.