Much like Sarah Gavron's recent Suffragette tells us, the fight for gender equality is never truly finished. Many films try to pretend as if men and women are treated equally in society, when that just isn't the case. Writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour tackle the issue of inequality abroad, but in a more modern setting with socially constructed battles that many women around the globe are forced to face everyday. Ergüven spent much of her youth traveling between France and Turkey, allowing her to constantly be reminded of the gender gap that would seemingly continue to widen. Mustang serves as a title that symbolizes the strength of the leads, as they must learn to cope with the expectations that their family and society have placed on them.
It's early summer in a village in northern Turkey, which is where Lale (Günes Sensoy) and her four sisters plan to have a fun and exciting time together. After innocently playing with a group of boys, their family transforms their household into a prison that they aren't allowed to leave under any circumstances. If any of these girls were to lose their virginity, no family would allow her to marry their son. In order to teach them how to be proper young women, they are given strict instruction in homemaking, as marriages begin to be arranged.
The story primarily unfolds within the confines of their home, where an intimidating uncle and a demanding grandmother seek to control each one of these girls until they are arranged to be married. They are all absolutely critical to the film, although it's entirely told from the perspective of Lale, the youngest sister. She fights most against the patriarchal system, as she constantly questions the methods of authoritative figures. Mustang utilizes narration from young Lale, but never to the extent of providing too much exposition. Rather, she enhances the feature's emotional impact. It begins rather quietly, as her voice drastically becomes more confident as the story continues to unfold. Ergüven and Winocour's screenplay could have easily become a heavy-handed exploration of young adulthood and arranged marriage, but ultimately is executed in a way that feels completely genuine.
Countless films incorporate the bond of sisterhood, but few of them handle it in a way that is so nuanced and inspired. Mustang thrives off of this bond, as the first act is so lively and light. However, the film continues to become progressively more bleak in both the plot and the visuals. Lale watches as one sister after another is forced to leave the home in order to live with their arranged husband. The effect of each sister leaving the house weighs heavily on the younger ones, as their bond slowly begins to disintegrate. Once they're forced to live apart from one another, it's as if their lively force has disappeared. Young women who were depicted as fun teenagers begin to wander the house more like the undead, with only Lale seeing a world beyond the walls of their home. Their bond is their strength.
This theme of strength is a major one, along with freedom. It isn't until Lale has been forced to separate from her sisters and she realizes that at least one of them has been sexually assaulted by their uncle that they need to escape. She sets her sights on Istanbul, as she tries to create a plan to get there. This ultimately lends its way to a third act that turns into an intense thrill ride filled with tension and an emotional impact. By this point, we've spent so much time with Lale within these walls, that we want nothing more than to see her escape them with her sisters and find a better life. The young female characters are depicted in this culture as being overly-sexualized and as having poor judgment. They only seek to enjoy being ordinary teenagers, but are forced to fulfill expectations that just might destroy them. It's a powerful film that hits all of the right themes and bits of social commentary.
Much of the emotional impact mentioned previously is due to the performances of the young actresses. Günes Sensoy in particular delivers her portrayal as Lale in a way that's truly honest and memorable. Ilayda Akdogan is also quite strong as Sonay, whose character transitions are depicted in a smooth and brilliant fashion. Ergüven's visual design greatly aids their performances, as she displays an exceptional use of light. Since most of the film takes place within one house, the majority of the light being utilized is sunlight coming through windows. This allows Ergüven to draw the eye of the viewer to the most important subjects on the screen. Mustang employs visuals that would make one believe that Ergüven has been doing this for years, but it's surprisingly her feature debut.
My only real complaint is that Ergüven's film only runs about 97 minutes long, and I would have liked a few more scenes between Lale and a kind-hearted driver that she meets. While the bond of sisterhood deserves the spotlight, the film would have benefited from a bit more interactions between the two characters. Otherwise, this is an extremely impressive feature debut from Deniz Gamze Ergüven that is worthy of being France's submission to this year's Academy Awards. It addresses the extreme inequality that takes place due to the construction of gender in societies all around the world. Most notably, it's a film about the sisterly bond in a patriarchal society, where they dream for something more from life. Mustang is an undeniably gripping piece of feminist filmmaking. Highly recommended!
Mustang will be playing at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 7th and November 8th.