Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, could be called a coming-of-age nightmare. It follows five orphaned teenage sisters who live with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and uncle in a remote Turkish village along the Black Sea. An uncontainable, collective whirlwind of hair and laughter and movement, the girls spend their days playing by the sea, running through the woods, stealing apples from a nearby orchard. Their loyalty to each other is vibrant, and fierce. When their grandmother beats them as punishment for being seen frolicking with boys, they put up a united front of resistance. An offense to one means an offense to all. Even as their house slowly becomes a prison — as walls are heightened and windows barred to keep the girls from running away at night — they retain their free-spiritedness. And Ergüven shoots them like a force of nature, because of course they are.
The film is narrated by Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the youngest of the sisters, but she could easily speak for the whole group. When she slams the “shit-colored” clothes that grandma makes them wear in order to reassert their modesty around town, we know the girls all feel this way. As the youngest, she also gets to watch in terror as her sisters are married off, one by one. The families of young men around town come by for the traditional proposal, during which the girl in question serves coffee and candy and the male head of one household asks the other to give her away. In Turkish, we call this “asking for the girl,” a phrase that always creeped the hell out of me. To be fair, the ritual has different meanings in different parts of the country; in much of Turkey, it’s just a quaint formality, a more elaborate equivalent to a man getting down on one knee. But in the world of Mustang, it means something very real and often very dangerous.
The marriages rush along, but there is variation among them: The oldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan), actually gets to marry her high-school sweetheart after she brusquely rejects one suitor; that scorned young man gets Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), the second-oldest, instead, with grandma exchanging the girls backstage as if they were carpets of slightly differing patterns. (“She’s one of a kind,” the matriarch, ever the saleswoman, says to each incoming family as she presents her wares.) Along the way, we get a hint that the older woman is simply reenacting a tragedy that also once happened to her. While preparing to marry off one of the youngest girls, she notes that she was the same age when she wed. “There were special circumstances then,” she says, leaving us to imagine what they were.
There were times in Mustang, particularly the first half, when I wished we got to know these girls better, and that they were a bit more differentiated in their boisterousness. But that’s also the point. They’re being whisked away from us before they’ve had a chance to develop and become fully realized people. “The house became a bride factory,” Lale bemoans at one point, as the girls are taught how to cook and clean and behave. A factory, and maybe also a slaughterhouse: As each girl is consumed by tradition, as each new suitor family shows up, Ergüven plays up the gnawing sense of doom, as in a thriller where the characters are picked off in succession.
The broad outlines of this story aren’t particularly new. Turkish cinema is filled with female characters who long to escape unwanted arranged marriages, so much so that it’s become cliché even as parody at this point. But Mustang breathes new life into the old trope by reconnecting it with the elemental horror that drives it. These aren’t just body-snatchers; they take your soul, too. And it’s a further testament to Ergüven’s filmmaking that other common motifs of Turkish melodrama that she’s reimagined here – everything from the liberated Western teacher in a small town, to the kindly truck driver, to the wedding that becomes a daring getaway – feel thoroughly new, even to these tired, jaded eyes.
But there’s something else here, too: Beyond the expertly tense tick-tock-tick-tock of her narrative, Ergüven demonstrates an understanding of what drives these traditions and mores. For Mustang is one of the few films I’ve seen that also grasps the perverted idealism that lies behind all this forced modesty. When Lale asks her uncle if she can go to a soccer match with him, he dismisses her with talk of all the gruesome, foulmouthed men who come to games and start fights. He claims to be protecting her. Grandma, too, believes she’s thinking of their best interests — their future in a land that will always judge them as wives, mothers, and homemakers. So much of what’s done to these girls is done for what others perceive will be their own good. The debilitating paternalism of this world denies its victims agency in an attempt to coddle and protect and preserve. That’s the cold, hard truth at the heart of this beautiful, harrowing film.