In ‘Mustang,’ five Turkish sisters battle traditional customs and the patriarchy

The five sisters of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film Mustang spend much of the movie curled up together like cats. They are a tangle of waist-length brown hair, and lanky limbs draped across laps, shoulders and thighs and stomachs used as pillows. What their physical proximity conveys is an emotional closeness and a tactile intimacy — dangerous qualities for free-spirited young girls in their small Turkish town to possess. At the beginning of Mustang, the sisters — Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, and Sonay — seem to move and think and operate as one. What Ergüven’s movie aims to show is how custom and culture find that female bond too dangerous to support. The belief being that the girls’ connection and free-spiritedness must be broken in order for them to be properly tamed.

The movie, which is France’s foreign-language submission to the Oscars this year, is narrated by the youngest sister of the five, Lale. Perhaps the choice for Lale as narrator is because her eyes provide the most innocent prism, or perhaps it was a practical story-telling choice; as the youngest she is able to watch custom and culture fissure their sisterly bond in an effort to keep order. The way this is achieved is by marrying them off one-by-one, eldest first.

The sisters are orphans, living in a rural Turkish town near the Black Sea with their overwhelmed grandmother and an uncle obsessed with keeping them pure. The opening scenes of the film show their life as joyful within those confines. The girls race through orchards and fall over one another with laughter, they tease and joke and treat life as a never-ending series of games. But this happiness quickly morphs into a life in lockdown as the sister’s are harshly punished for one specific incident on the last day of school. A neighbor reported to the girls’ grandmother that all five sisters were seen frolicking with boys on the nearby beach. “My granddaughters pleasuring themselves on boys’ necks!” Their grandmother shouts. When the girls in a chorus of voices yelling on top of one another try to tell her it was only a game (chicken fights, to be exact), their grandmother replies: “There is no such game.”

After this, their house turns into a nearly literal prison. Walls are built higher, bars put on windows, and anything that could potentially be seen as perverted taken away. The girls are also forced to trade in their wardrobes for shapeless brown dresses that skim the floor. As Lale puts it, “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to sh-t.”

Aside from the physical changes, the house is also turned into what Lale calls a “wife factory.” It’s an environment where independence and exuberance are seen as reprehensible and the girls spend their days being taught to sew and cook, bake and darn. Virginity tests are administered. Still the girls keep pushing the envelope, sneaking out to see boyfriends after dark or going to soccer games from which they are strictly forbidden.

As it becomes clear that locking them up is not working, the wife factory turns into a slaughterhouse — with the girls brought one-by-one into the sitting room to meet the men they will marry. “She’s one of a kind,” their grandmother boasts about each granddaughter, selling her wares the best she knows how. As we see it from Lale’s eyes this marriage ritual looks terrifying and dark — child brides taught to be wives and then pawned off to the neighbor boys, almost always against their will.

With five sisters locked tight in a house, the similarities to The Virgin Suicides are hard to avoid. But while The Virgin Suicides is told from a wistful male gaze looking back on provocative neighborhood lore, Mustang is told from the female gaze within the house and very pointedly in the present tense.

Zooming out from the immediate world of these sisters, what this movie is ultimately about is a woman’s place. These five girls are tamed and bridled and led to water by the expectations of a conservative society. Mustang is about paternalism in the name of false protection, and freedom seen as threat. It’s about how even the firmest of bridles snap when you try to hold on to a wild thing way too tight.

Mustang is currently playing at select theaters around the country. 

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[All images via Cohen Media]

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