There is a poignant moment in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s wonderful debut Mustang where Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the young narrator of the tale, tries desperately to sabotage her sister Ece (Elit İşcan) as she prepares treats for their guest. A traditional act of hospitality in most households, Lale’s actions seem like nothing more than an act of youthful defiance. However, when examining the scene closer, and taking into account the greater significance the ritual carries in Lale’s Turkish home, the sense of desperation in her actions becomes clear. The presentation of drinks and treats is not simply about being a gracious host, but rather showing off a potential bride for an arranged marriage.
Unlike the stallion that the film’s title alludes to, Lale and her four sisters – who also include Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), and Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) – are powerless to roam wild and free like they truly desire. Though this does not stop them from trying every chance they get. It is this clash between the young women’s desire for more fulfilling lives and the old tyrannical values that intend to keep them shackled down that fuels Ergüven’s film. She presents a world where the mere act of harmlessly fraternizing with boys on the beach is grounds for the girls off to be rushed off to the doctor to ensure their virginity, their most valuable commodity, remains intact.
The siblings, who are orphans living with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), literally become prisoners in their own home. Iron bars on the windows seal them off from the outside world unless accompanied by an elder. They spend their days learning all the traditional things, such as keeping house and preparing meals, they are expected to know in order to keep a man. As if cattle with expiry dates stamped on them, they are groomed until their grandmother can quickly marry them off.
Similar to inmates on death row, their only way out of this life is by marriage, which is its own form of death when love is not involved in any stage of the process.
Presenting the events through Lale’s eyes, Güneş Şensoy gives a heartbreakingly rich performance in the role, allows Ergüven to slowly build the sense of claustrophobia. It also provides a chance for the viewer to observe and familiarize themselves with the sisterly dynamics, lulling them into a false sense of security. However, just as the audience get a little too comfortable with the rhythms of the narrative, Ergüven unexpectedly cranks up the tension to emphasize how dire Lale’s predicament really is. The fact that the film feels both modern and familiar is no accident either. Despite the advancements that shape our world, and released in a year when a female has a decent shot of being President of the United States, Ergüven’s film is quick to remind us that there are many cultures that still consider women to be subservient to both men and their cultural practices at large.
Thankfully, just as Lale is desperate to break the cycle that has plagued her sisters, Mustang also wants to break the cycle of complacency within such institutions. It wants to empower those who may find themselves in similar circumstances. A powerful and moving drama, the film ushers in Ergüven as a director who audiences need to keep their eye on.