Last Sunday, “Mustang” — the first film from Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven — narrowly lost the Oscar for best foreign film to Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul.” If that was the first you’ve heard of “Mustang,” it won’t be the last.
Though heralded as the Turkish “Virgin Suicides,” “Mustang” shares only its structure, not its substance, with Coppola’s cult classic. The film follows five orphaned sisters growing up in a coastal Turkish town who, after a neighbor sees them playing with male classmates on the beach, are imprisoned in their grandmother’s home to preserve their marriageability. However, as the title might suggest, “Mustang” is full of a wildness and passion that allows it to both lament the girls’ captivity and commend their resilience.
The girls function as a sort of collective unit, each one more or less representative of the whole — with the exception of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the youngest sister and the film’s narrator. It is her rebelliousness and energy that seems to set much of the film in motion. Her love of soccer sends the girls on their largest rebellion: a secret outing to an all-female soccer game. She is the audience surrogate — through her eyes we see the movie and feel her anxiety and restlessness.
Ergüven crafts her film with a gentleness that allows the space the girls inhabit to be both beautiful and oppressive. Shots full of lush greenery and golden sunlight stand in brilliant contrast to the coldness and severity with which the girls’ lives are handled.
Similarly, despite its negative portrayals of marriage, “Mustang” is full of love. The girls love each other with an unrivaled fierceness. Beacons of hope outside the family, like Yasin and Lale’s teacher, love the girls and help them find a world full of hope.
That isn’t to say that “Mustang” is a beautiful, rose-colored cry for help. The girls are not manic angels awaiting rescue. They are not passive or quiet. They are fierce and independent. The walls close in on them because they push out against them.
Likewise, Ergüven does not hold back on the social commentary. The oppression of women, especially young women, and the unfaltering fascination with their purity is at the forefront. Their sin was not playing on the beach with boys, but rather their sin was being born girls. Their most important feature is their marriageability. Their sin of femininity can only be absolved once they are tied forever to a man.
And while it might be easy to dismiss this world as being completely Turkish (as a way to say it is completely not American), Ergüven crafts it in a way that makes it universal. The girls, as much as they function as individual forces, also function as representatives of all girls, all young women who are held back by walls literal or figurative.
This is how “Mustang” transcends its labels as a “Turkish ‘Virgin Suicides’” or a “modern ‘Pride & Prejudice.’” It becomes something wholly its own, belonging as much to its cast and crew as it does to every girl who has ever yearned for freedom.