Stories for girls: Mustang

The first fifteen minutes of Mustang contain one of the year’s loveliest sequences: four sisters, united in love and shared jokes, roughhouse with boys in the Black Sea. No euphemism intended: what we see is nothing more than games of chicken, tousling, and diving off shoulders. But in the eyes of their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) boys are boys, and unless they’re married girls have no business messing around with them in any capacity. Furious, she forbids them from leaving the house. Their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who wears the expression of a man who hasn’t giggled in centuries, is the muscle. As punishment they must wear what one sister calls “shit-colored clothes. Their grandmother forces them to participate in proper womanly activities like baking and sewing.

Sensual and fleet of foot, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film catches the foursome as they test the limits of their culture. Mustang isn’t an indictment either. The grandmother and Erol have their reasons, and Ergüven patiently delineates the cakes and clothes that are part of the former’s world. But Mustang can’t help but play differently to non-Turkish audiences, who will watch the deprivations inflicted on the girls and shake their heads, reassured that West is best. As pleasurable as it is to watch four young women mixing without men and self-sufficient, the film doesn’t present enough sides to the characters; after a while Mustang settles into a familiar pattern of rebellion followed by punishment.

In the northern Turkish village where the girls live, parents place a premium on virginity. A woman with a broken hymen needs the okay from a physician that it wasn’t caused by someone or something else. Before marriage the women submit to a kind of virginity report. Even on the wedding night the psychological health of a generation of elders depends on the groom’s showing a dowager the bloody sheets. Youngest daughter Lale, who resisted her grandmother and uncle at the beginning, buckles most fiercely against restrictions. Siblings Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan) and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) are less likely to chafe. The men to whom the elder sisters are betrothed seem like decent sorts who look as dazed as the sisters. In the film’s most sustained sequence, the sisters lock Erol and a would-be groom out of the house, going so far as to block windows and doors. The laughing grandmother fumbling through explanations to the horrified groom’s family lends her poignancy. She’s trapped too and doesn’t know it (Erguven frames her in overhead shots).

Indebted to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides but without the gauze, Mustang could use some Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, A Real Young Girl), who has also forged a career out of showing young women in sexual crises that don’t preclude enjoyment. Showing rebellion onscreen is easier than the struggle to follow convention. Also, at times it’s hard to distinguish the sisters. Maybe that’s Ergüven’s point: the quartet functions as a single organism, balking at the conventions imposed by well-meaning elders (which is why I appreciate Güneş Şensoyas as Lale). Also, at times it’s hard to distinguish the sisters. After the art house success of Girlhood, though, Mustang might find its audience. Contexts change, the story’s the same.

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