Female empowerment in the context of real-world circumstances is not a topic often explored by American movies, whether they come from male-dominated Hollywood or the only marginally more progressive American independent film scene. So maybe it's fitting that the extraordinary Mustang — which uses the story of five free-spirited, mostly teenaged sisters to explore the oppressive patriarchal society of modern-day Turkey — comes from the imagination of director and co-writer Deniz Gamze Erguven, a 37-year-old Turkish-born, French-raised woman making her feature film debut.
Representing France as one of five Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees, Mustang appears to lay its cards on the table before the opening credits have finished. A young female voice begins the film's intermittent narration with, "Everything changed in the blink of an eye. One moment we were fine ..." and the next it had all gone wrong. But that stark warning doesn't prepare viewers for the film's nimble and frequent shifts in tone, as the ultimately unclassifiable Mustang moves through elements familiar from coming-of-age stories, prison movies, psychological thrillers and even fables and fairy tales, with five self-possessed princesses at its center.
That bit of narration refers to the film's opening sequence, in which the sisters and some boys from their school engage in innocent horseplay on a beach in their rural seaside town, but it is misinterpreted by gossipy adults as sexually charged and deeply inappropriate. The result is virtual imprisonment for the orphaned sisters as their grandmother — along with their domineering uncle — pulls the young girls out of school, puts bars on the windows of their house and launches what one of the sisters refers to as a "wife factory." The incident on the beach comes straight from Erguven's experience, as does knowledge of events depicted later in the film in which a young bride's in-laws bring her to a hospital after her wedding night for a doctor to conduct a "virginity check."
As shocking as they are, those incidents are merely representative of the world depicted in Mustang. But Erguven's purpose is not to reveal grim realities of her homeland. The film is moving and uplifting in its portrayal of budding, indomitable womanhood, even as it turns much darker in its final third. Not a translation but the actual title of the film, Mustang refers to the wild, famously untamable horses that roam free in the American West as a tribute to the film's primary characters.
Erguven searched far and wide to find her ensemble of on-screen sisters, settling on a group that included only one girl with previous acting experience. But their work is virtually flawless as they build the kind of mutual ease and near-telepathic communication unique to close-knit sisterhood. Vivid images generated by cinematographer and Erguven's film-school contemporary David Chizallet support the film's evolving moods. A varied and emotionally rich score was composed and performed by Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Mustang is straightforward in its depiction of the culturally enforced subjugation of women but never comes across as a political statement. To describe it as feminist would reduce the film. Its characters' struggles are shared — to one extent or another — by half the human race. But the quest for freedom and self-determination is something to which each of us can easily relate.