When we think about foreign movies we rightly or wrongly tend to immediately think of them in terms of their country of origin. This is problematic firstly because not all movies are going to fit into regional trends, secondly because it needlessly “others” movies that may well not be all that different from the domestic product, and finally because a good number of movies can’t be easily categorized as being from a single country and that’s increasingly true this year. Take a movie like Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which is made by an Italian director but is set in Switzerland and has a predominantly Anglophone cast, and also had a good deal of French funding. The same goes for seemingly American movies like Room, which is set in the United States and has an American cast but was actually a co-production of Ireland and Canada and whose writer and director are both Irish. Then of course you have a film like Mustang, which is set in Turkey and has a Turkish cast, but was funded largely through French and German money and was directed by a woman who was born in Turkey but raised in France. If the film competes for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category it will have to do so under the French flag, which in many cases would be a technicality but in this case is perhaps telling. Turkey could have submitted the film themselves but opted not to and I’m suspecting that this is partly because this is not a movie that represents Turkey at its best but also because I feel like this is a movie that has been made with distinctly western values and interests in mind rather than the tastes of Turkish audiences.
The film is set in a remote village in present day (I think its present day anyway) Turkey and focuses on five sisters ranging in age from about ten or so to something like sixteen (played by Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, and İlayda Akdoğan). These girls are living with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), seemingly because their biological parents have died by means that are never explained and are also seemingly under the care of their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). This grandmother and this uncle are both extremely conservative and believe in some very old-world traditions about the place of women in society. After the girls get involved in what would seem to most eyes like an innocent game with some boys at a beach these parental figures decide that they need to crack down on these girls’ behavior in order to protect their chastity and ensure that they can be married off when the parents see fit. Soon the parents are refusing to let the girls go outside without close supervision and are essentially making them prisoners in their own home.
The most obvious analogue to this movie is of course Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which was also about a group of five sisters living under the domineering eyes of their highly conservative parents and becoming depressed and/or rebellious as they find themselves basically locked inside their homes because their parents want to protect them from the modern world. The parallels are pretty undeniable and if anything Mustang simplifies things by eliminating the device of telling its story from the perspective of a third party. If there is a major difference between the two works it’s that the nutty religious family in Coppola’s movie appear to be fairly isolated in their society, the beliefs of this family seem to be pretty widely accepted within the remote town they live in even if the wider Turkey seems to have moved on from them. Actually, the exact extent of how pervasive conservative beliefs are in these girls life is a little unclear early on. In many ways it seems as if they’ve been living recognizable modern western lives for most of their lives until that’s suddenly cut off when out of nowhere their guardians decide to “crack the whip” and make sure they start behaving like proper ladies, but that doesn’t exactly make sense. I would think that if these parents feel this strongly about raising these girls under such rigid rules they would have been doing that from the beginning.
That Virgin Suicides parallel does bug me, it’s really hard to come out and call something “great” when it so closely resembles another well regarded movie, especially when that other movie has a premise that isn’t terribly common. That having been said, I think I liked Mustang a lot better than Coppola’s movie in a number of ways. This movie just looks really good. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven clearly has a really good eye for film and gives the film a really strong visual style that picks up on the energy and liveliness of its young teenage subjects and she also gets some great naturalistic performances out of these girls who I assume are basically non-actors. The movie has a great way of picking up these little behavioral moments that don’t really add to the plot but really help paint a picture and she also has a way of doing it that doesn’t feel indulgent or ponderous. This movie is accessible and it moves along at a brisk pace. The movie is a win overall, but it’s the kind of promising debut that makes me less excited for the movie that’s in front of me than for what the director will be doing next.
***1/2 out of Four