Turkish cinema is unique in its capacity to recast American movies from a cultural vantage that is simultaneously Western and Eastern. Just consider Cetin Dnan c’s 1982’s film, The Man Who Saved The Earth; it is a picture so bogged-down with stolen footage and music from Lucasfilm that it was dubbed the “Turkish Star Wars.”
Similarly, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s impressive Mustang, is a Turkish reflection of (and improvement upon) Sofia Coppola’s debut, The Virgin Suicides. Like the Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, the script by Erguven and French director Alice Winocour (Augustine) focuses on a tale of five girls, ages 9-17. Sonay is the eldest (Ilayda Akdogan); Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Ece (Elit Iscan) are in the middle, and Nur (Doga Doguslu) and Lale (Gunes Sensoy) are the two youngest.
The girls are kept in a barred house to protect their reputations. They’re innocent, but they’re also in a rural culture where young girls are guilty until proven innocent by the local gossip. Their ostensibly wild behavior pressures their guardians—their grandma and uncle—into arranging marriages to carry them off. Their house is on a steep hill that it looks like Rapunzel’s tower; through the bars on their windows, the girls have a view of the sea-coast where the initial “dishonoring” occurred.
That’s how Mustang begins. Excited for their last day of school, these sisters plunged into the water, school uniforms and all, with some of their classmates. They had a splashing chicken fight and stole some nearby apples from an orchard. This adventure resulted in a mandatory hymen check by a doctor, and a life of being locked up and swaddled up in dung-colored Mother Hubbard-style dresses.
The Coppola influence is visible on Mustang in the softness of the ’70s-ish photography. And there’s some similarity between the staging of both Erguven’s and Coppola’s sister-piles. These bored, cooped-up young misses are arranged in a tangle of limbs, in closeups of dreaming faces, and a scrimmage of long-haired heads.
Erguven’s is a limber, vigorous style of filmmaking, with a completely different attack on this story of purdah than Coppola used on her trapped Catholic teens. These girls escape—to a soccer game, to clandestine driving lessons. One decides to become the very thing she has been falsely accused of being: a slut.
In Virgin Suicides, there was a line about James Woods, the father of the ill-fated Lisbon sisters of suburban Michigan, living in a “fog of estrogen.” Sounds like a balmy climate to me, but Virgin Suicides was a foggy movie—it drifted across the screen like a cloud. Coppola conceived of immurement as if it were a long slumber party.
Mustang includes scenes that have the appeal of the kind of floating, idle life Coppola filmed in The Virgin Suicides. The girls are drawn into crafts that old ladies have to teach them, such as making candy. The fullness of the picture is in the way we’re allowed to vicariously enjoy the preparations of a wedding, even if the wedding is a sham in which the bride has to steal glasses of raki, and, after the honeymoon, provide evidence of hymenal blood.
This generously angry Mustang identifies with the wrong these Turkish orphans have been done, their refusal to be captives and their profane scorn for the chastity lectures they hear clerics giving on television. Even in a country where the newly dead are supposed to be in the ground by nightfall, the speed of a sudden death and the funeral is brutal.
Mustang simmers with its implicit anger, but it doesn’t just offer lamentation and resignation; it resembles The Wolfpack in a story of how trapped children make their own fun, and it takes up the struggle recorded in the groundbreaking 2000 Iranian anthology film The Day I Became a Woman. To return to Star Wars, Mustang could be summed up by that new hit’s best line: Harrison Ford saying, “Listen, Big Deal É women always find out the truth. Always.”
PG-13; 97 Min.