DREAMING AS WOMAN BETWEEN SKIN AND NON-SKIN: ON Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Mustang” (2015)
“Even if it seems like it’s telling a story from a little village in Turkey, it’s actually a universal issue… I think every woman is facing some kind of inequality in her life, whether once or many times, so I think everyone is finding something from their lives.” – Mustang Actress Elit Iscan, 22, The Atlantic Interview
“The fear of lost sexual innocence underpins this ebullient sibling comedy-drama with shades of Sofia Coppola…” – Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
“Mustang is full of life even as it depicts lives in lockdown.” – Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times
Between the dreamy, suffocating innocence, and intimacy of sisterhood, director Deniz Gamze Ergüven re-visits the cultural phenomenology of sisterhood as the stubborn dome of feminine, and universal exploitation in her feature drama film– the coming-of-age, Turkish-French debut Mustang (2015). By reminding us that the old-minded, conservative, and sexualized domination of the female in the household (whose duty and life is assumably, and will always, belong within “domestic borders”‘) problematically persists as a stubborn and “culturally global” mind-set, the world is re-visited again by a type of rearing approach that is sadly, indeed the norm for the majority of female youth.
Despite its unjustifiable extremities– it is through the power of organic interjection, environment, closeness of space, and perspectorial intrusion Ergüven paints a colorful, beautiful, delicate, and operatic lifespan of sisterly reality despite delving into constant tension, fear, and patriarchal violence. As The Guardian writes in a chilling manner, alluding to broader allegories of child development in Turkey, “The Virgin suicides in Anatolia is a sad… and sweet, delight”– despite this phenomenon being characteristic to numerous regions– whether religiously intrinsic or culturally fracturing.
As the narrative is intwined in a touching battle between feminine, and feminist spheres, it is particularly through innocence, and hypnotic mischievousness (thus, a clear type of shifting: from a pluralized narrative of the sisters to a more personal, and individualized one– as the sisters’ lives disperse in fragmentation of the story) Ergüven slowly reveals to us the brightest, willful, most headstrong, and perhaps individual-minded girl among the sisters: the youngest.
By isolating her decisions throughout the narrative, both through appearance of her glowing eyes and untamed hair (alluding to the stubborn and persevering animal itself, the Mustang) and attitude almost as an aside while “knocking out” the complex situations of the other sisters through the lifespan of the film (such as being married off by the mother and father), it is the constant hardship, strife, the ancient legacy of child marriage, and inadvertent submission to social rules– defined by gossip and constant judgement– that the attitude of the society, which envelopes the rural family by barricading their life, becomes akin to being the larger, metaphoric prison the film perpetuates in, which is only subdued by the vilifying touch, and shocking power of light.
Old minded enmities, combined with the deconstructive nature of religious fanaticism, ironically leads to both the empowering growth, and destruction, of the evangelical antiquity of sisterhood in Mustang. Alluding again to Istanbul as the “modern” Turkish city which perpetuates with light, the dynamics of rural turkey accumulates in the film’s very conclusive release: as the girls embrace the muffled and infamous noise of Istanbul as they cross the bridge on a tourist bus.
Just as described in Akin’s discussion of 2005 film, Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul, the bridge of Istanbul, reliquary in its dispersing of light, the globalized city becomes the last two sisters’ crossing over, into adulthood: the escapist victory and liberation against conservative violence.
As Akin has always described, it is, in the same way, “The stereotypical bridge of Istanbul, whose noise and fascination with the West encapsulates the very other through its freedom.” (The Perception and Marketing of Faith Akin in the German Press, Karolin Machtans).
Elaborating on the dreamy, painterly-quality of the film through the rippling of light– Ergüven de-focalizes a narrative from the contextual to the experimental– almost highlighting the angelic beauty and will of the untethered Virgin with a constant glow. What I found particularly striking in the film is the way light constantly creeps up on us– but also haunts us… Beautifully– it seeps through the window, blurs the rosy skin of the child’s cheeks, stalks them in the night, while amplifying the space which exists in sisterhood as the empathetic energy of exclusive comfort.
It is, the sunlight in which they imagine to bathe in as they swim in the ocean of their rooms– their childhood space and fantasy— their gasp for air as the wind liberates their untamed hair, and hides their giggles as they sneak out to the football game against their father’s wishes, the consummation of fear of the headlights– reduced to the deer, when their father threatens to run over them in the night, and the destruction of light therein, when the thrown object, towards them, threatens security, freedom, and impose darkness in the cage-ed home: the Mustangs, encaged by conservatism as zoo animals, while adults outside greed, and feed, on nonsensical punishment.
Catered to both an international, and family-audience– the bittersweet narrative thus exists as both documentary and fiction– superimposing the notion of oppression while persevering, told through a style that is both feeble yet highly muscular.
Although the film at times is propulsive, equally entrapping the viewer in the sisters’ very own prison, it is undoubtedly artfully pensive. The sisters’ defiance to submission is not superficial, but rather political– a seeming disorder that makes the sisters’ undesirable as wives as they defy their transition into the ‘humanized woman,’ or the ridiculed emergence of matriarchy because of patriarchy.
“I remember describing that to a potential [cinematographer] and him looking at me as if I was crazy,” she adds, “And then I look at the film and it’s so much there, it’s so much one character. All the choices we made to shoot the film with that idea in mind. When the girls came together, they were all having a riot of their own… There’s also something jubilatory in the film, the actions of the characters are always the things you dreamt you would have said. As a little girl you, are taught your survival strategy is to go by the rules, be quiet and obedient. And these girls are just breaking all those things.”
“This is probably the most exciting thing for the audience,” she adds. “It’s a movie about breaking free, and those themes of freedom resonate with anyone.”
With a wistful sigh, Ergüven beams, “They’re my mustangs.” (Mustang, Directorial Interview, Los Angeles Times).