The debut film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven is so much more than a Turkish retelling of The Virgin Suicides – it’s an enchanting and often fiery love letter to childhood and the bond between sisters
In the Middle Ages, a girl’s virginity was considered sacred. Unsullied and sexually pure, daughters were a treasure to be guarded, their chastity a commodity that could be bought and sold. Girls were passed from father to husband like paper dolls, and women who tried to rupture this patriarchal daisy chain were frequently branded witches, whores and heretics.
Mustang, the directorial debut from Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, isn’t set in the Middle Ages, but it does explore what it means to be a girl whose life is governed by men, and where the fierce dichotomy of holy virginity and whoredom defines her every move.
The film opens like a fairy tale in the height of summer. Five young sisters, with hair as long as mermaid tails, run away to play on the beach with a group of schoolboys. They spend the afternoon exploring the foothills by their uncle’s house and falling down in a tangle of limbs, drunk on laughter and apples and their own shimmering childhoods.
Like a lot of fairy tales, the day soon fizzles into nightmare. Childish fun is corrupted, and innocent games are twisted into “depraved” and “obscene” acts. The sisters’ only crime is becoming attractive young women, but it’s enough to set their sleepy Turkish village ablaze.
Mustang is a film that feels light, its lens frothy and sun-dappled, but still packs a punch. Like the ethereal youngsters in The Virgin Suicides, the girls are locked away, forbidden to leave the house or make contact with the opposite sex. The youngest sister, Lale, describes their home as a wife factory, where the sisters are moulded into perfect little women that can cook and clean. Paraded before a wreath of potential suitors, the wistful romanticism of girlhood is scraped raw. We are shown that it’s not attraction or budding love that makes a good union, but the twin prongs of wealth and social status.
Despite her lack of experience, Ergüven imbues her debut with the quiet confidence of a maestro. Mustang may be a small film, but it’s not afraid to tackle large subjects, such as society’s perpetuation of virginity and its vilification of sexual prowess. If a woman is not a virgin, then she must be sexually voracious; if she’s a feminist, then she must reject being a wife and mother. Mustang is very aware of this ridiculous outlook. The girls are adored for being beautiful, young and female yet they aren’t trusted. Every laugh is rebellion, and each lingering gaze carries a promise of sin.
“I’ve slept with the entire world,” one of the older sisters says when asked if her virginity is intact. Her response may be deadpan and humorous, but the context is saddening. Here is a teenage girl who’s learnt that she cannot be validated unless she bleeds on her wedding night, that her torn hymen is the most valuable thing she can offer. Youth and beauty are ephemeral qualities, and it’s hard not to compare the film with our own male-controlled, selfie-obsessed culture, where women are told to be eternally young, or risk being replaced by another set of momentarily precious girls.
Ultimately the film is a testament to sisterhood and the restorative love between women. Although they each have a distinct personality, the girls often appear as a single entity with five heads and ten arms, like a mythical creature or fairy ring. As each sister is married off, a little of this magic is slain. It can’t be accidental that the girls’ veils look like funeral shrouds, or that one wedding is interrupted by a gunshot. Like the most striking scenes in Mustang, these moments are ripe with symbolism. Perhaps the virginity lost isn’t just a bodily one, but one of the self. The sisters may gain husbands, but they also lose their names, their bonds and any identity to call their own.
Mustang isn’t devoid of hope, as Ergüven evokes the unbridled magic and resilience of childhood. Lale becomes the mustang of the film, a spirited, headstrong girl who refuses vulnerability or to become an extension of her future husband. Where the other girls begin to fade, becoming self-destructive or resigned, she fights – spitting in guests’ coffee, stealing money and plotting a prison break. Her creation is on par with cinema’s pluckiest young heroines, like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird or Mattie Ross from True Grit, and her actions summon memories from our own hardy, half-wild childhoods.
In another pair of hands, Mustang could have felt sanctimonious and clumsy. Instead, Ergüven has crafted a subtle masterpiece celebrating the fleeting pleasures of girlhood. The greatest tragedy is realising that these girls will never truly escape their prison of high walls and barred windows. Even upon release, they must learn to navigate a world dictated by the sharply defined categories of virgin or whore, of daughter or wife, of young and beautiful or old and decrepit.
Through each of her achingly fragile protagonists, Ergüven vows to fight these societal chains, and encourages us to do the same.
*Also published in music & culture magazine The 405