“When I said I was a virgin no one beleieved me…why won’t you all just leave me alone?” The words are ironic: Selma is laying on her back at the doctors office as he checks to see if her hymen is still intact or not. It’s her wedding night, and Selma didn’t bleed as is supposed to be customary with virgins. Although the situation is serious, Selma seems almost bored, detached.
Despite its unbridled name, Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 film Mustang keeps the tone muted, but intense. A film about five orphaned teenagers in Turkey who are seen innocently splashing around at the beach with male classmates and then locked up could have had the potential to be full of hormonal dramatics, but this is realistic drama. besides the moment when second-eldest Sonay starts to scream because she wants to marry her boyfriend (which she does, on the same night as Selma is forced to wed a complete stranger) the girls are by and large silent, although not complacent, of their fate. There is nary a tear in sight: their’s is a silent rebellion, where actions speak louder than words.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of emotions: watching Mustang, I felt plenty of them. i felt an irrepressible desire to be one of the sisters, at least at the beginning of the film, when they giggle and play. Mustang perfectly captures the beautiful innocence and carelessness of youth, even as it is being crushed by the patriarchy: the girls tumble out of bed to retrieve a note thrown through the open window, and Sonay sneaks out at night to visit her boyfriend, the crickets chirping, the orange lamplight glowing on the wall. Nur and Lale, the two youngest, pretend they are swimming by donning their bathing suits and “diving” through piles of bedsheets.
The three most pivotal scenes are intense, but even then the girls are pretty much unharassed and cool, collected. The four girls shimmy out the window and hitchhike to catch up with a bus heading to a football game, where they dance and cheer with abandon. Coming home, there is no frantic discussion about what they are going to say or do (can I also add that I love that their grandmother, who spots the girls on TV, takes out the electricity of the whole neighborhood so Uncle Errol doesn’t see them!) After this rebellion the girls are locked into the house more securely, forbidden from school.
The second equally nerve-wracking scene unfolds with similar confidence: Ece, the middle sister, Nur and Lale are told to wait in the car while their Uncle stops to get something. Ece starts chatting with a local boy, and the next thing you know Nur and Lale are told to stand gaurd while she rolls up the windows and has sex with the boy. When Uncle Erol returns early, Nur and Lale don’t jump up and down trying to distract him, they docilely walk with him back to the car, where Ece is mercifully dressed and alone. Later that night, she shoots herself to death after being sent from the dinner table.
The film climaxes with a rather unexpected but brilliant act of daring by the youngest, the brave and conniving Lale who refuses to be married off to a stranger. On the night of Nur’s wedding she bolts the front door as her grandmother steps out to greet the guests. She turns to Nur, dressed in a red veil and in shock: “Do you want to get married?” She demands matter-of-factly. The girls barricade the other doors; because bars have been fitted in the windows and on a portico-like section where they stand, staring at the wedding party, no one can enter the house. It is a perfectly ironic moment: the adults wanted the girls trapped in the house, so here they are.
The scene had me on the edge of my chair. It was almost as though the girls are playing a child’s game, hding from their gaurdians. It’s almost ludicrous that Lale chooses this moment for them to make their escape. Yet the situation is serious, the threat murder. Uncle Erol tells Nur to approach the bars. Despite her act of rebellion, Nur obeys her uncle, who has been sexually abusing her; he reaches out and tries to strangle her. In vain, Lale calls Yasin, the friendly truck driver who has taught her how to drive, fo help. The girls grab their belongings and sneak out onto the veranda, where they are hidden by the leaves. Their uncle hears them and starts shooting, but Lale is one step ahead of him: she has stolen his car keys. Lale and Nur drive away, only to crash a short distance from their home. They wait in the bushes for Yasin, who finally arrives and puts them on a bus to Istanbul.
The ending is indeed a bit inorganic, as one review put it; compared tto the rest of the film, it is a surprisingly happy Hollywood ending. But it is a possible, scenario, although I would have preferred the girl-power exhiliratin of Lale successfully driving the car to The bus depot instead of their rescue by the (male) Yasin. All in all, if you’re looking for a film that packs the girl power without an in-your-face feminist battle-cry, Mustang is it. It is a true pity it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 73rd Academy Awards. I can’t wait to see what Deniz Gamze Ergüven creates next.