Every year, it can be difficult for those who love the Academy Awards to see every film nominated by the time of the telecast. It is perhaps most difficult to do so because of categories like Best Foreign Language Film, often filled with movies that have little to no distribution in the United States, and when they do they often stick to the art house circuit. This can be frustrating, as these films are often not only good and worthy of consideration as among the best world cinema has to offer, but they also tend to be bolder, and stray more off the beaten path than the more established Oscar fare. This year’s entry from France is Mustang, a co-production with Turkey (really, the film is entirely Turkish, in the Turkish language, featuring a Turkish locale, cast and a Turkish director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven) that is slowly making its way around the country’s theaters, boasting strong buzz thanks to its five young female leads.
Best understood as a sort of Turkish tale on The Virgin Suicides (though that could be considered a tad reductive), Mustang concerns five sisters (Günes Sensoy’s Lale, Doga Zeynep Doguslu’s Nur, Elit Iscan’s Ece, Tugba Sunguroglu’s Selma and Ilayda Akdogan’s Sonay) living in a rural village by the Black Sea in Turkey. After a mostly innocent bout of play fighting with some boys on the banks of a river on the way home from their last day of school is witnessed by a woman from the town, the girls are greeted at their home by their irate grandmother (Nihal Koldas), whose second-hand account of the incident makes her believe their value as chaste wives to be has been ruined. With the assistance of their dangerously overbearing uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), the girls are confined to a house that becomes increasingly prison-like as they attempt to circumvent the rules and live their lives with a modicum of freedom. Things turn particularly dire as the older members of the clan find themselves embroiled in classically wife-like duties and arranged marriages hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Their freedom erodes further with every barred gate and spiked wall erected on the compound, but their indomitable spirit forges on, even as their tight-knit sisterhood begins to be forced apart.
At its core, Mustang is a film about a patriarchal society and the true harm it can to do the youth who grow up within it. The implications for those raised directly under the thumb of this sort of oppression is clear. They are taken out of school, their studies replaced by homemaking lessons designed to make them model wives and mothers and literally nothing else. Beyond that, it also serves up the model product of that society in the form of the domineering uncle, a man with little time for or interest in the day to day goings on of his family but all the say in what they can or cannot do. It is painful and troubling to see anyone forced to endure such unnecessary trauma, hearkening back to similar films that explore the effects of anti-feminist traditionalism like the Romania-based Beyond the Hills. It is an approach that makes it impossible to feel anything but empathy for the victims of this sort of oppression, a simple but effective way to get the audience on their side. Of course, the director needs to capitalize on that baseline sympathy and turn it into something constructive and meaningful, else it would be little more than a case of bald emotional shortcutting. Luckily, Ergüven has assembled quite the ensemble to help tell her tale.
The majority of the young ladies here are not seasoned actresses (only Iscan has screen credits prior to this one), but it would be difficult to discern this from the poise they bring to their roles. The closest consideration of a lead is Sensoy’s Lale, the youngest and fiercest of the girls, much more interested in watching football than learning to braid hair, cook or do laundry. Her choices drive much of the action, and she provides both the sense of innocence and undeniable spirit that comes to define the girls as a collective. This is to take nothing away from the other performances; all of the actresses bring their own flavor to their roles, but Sensoy is certainly the highlight. Mustang is further aided by warm, natural lighting (creating a distinct contrast between nature and the prison their home has become, especially as that light is broken up by the shadows of bars that keep them contained) and soft style camera work that gives the film a gauzy, lived-in feel. It can get Malickian from time to time, as films so often seem to do these days, but it fits Ergüven’s plans and needs quite well.
As the film moves on and arranged marriages and tragic incidents erode the familial bonds that kept the girls going, the stakes raise in the final act with only Lale and Nur left to fend for themselves against their family. At this point, the film morphs into something akin to a home invasion horror film for much of its final act, a tense standoff that, thanks to the character work done in the first two acts, is surprisingly thrilling despite perhaps representing a bit of a tonal shift. Even more powerful, though, is the film’s final scene, a perfectly calibrated outburst of emotion from a moment that does not telegraph itself, creating a lovely surprise that shouldn’t really be a surprise at all, a reminder of the true potential for human kindness. It pulls away not a second too late nor too soon, leaving the audience to make their own decisions about what the future holds. Ergüven has crafted a film that traces a consistent upward trajectory, building everything toward this one moment. If it failed, the entire enterprise would have been in danger of collapsing on itself. But because of this ending and its cinematic triumph, Mustang takes flight and soars.