When one hears the plot of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated film Mustang, it’s natural to automatically think of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Both stories deal with five beautiful sisters who are sheltered from the outside world due to restrictive guardians, and both tell their dark stories through the lens of a fairy tale, with bright, dreamlike cinematography and a lyrical flare that is at odds with the much darker story that lurks beneath.
In Virgin, that darkness is filtered through the narrator: the story is told through the eyes of a group of boys who can’t help but idealize the Lisbon sisters. Their male gaze turns ordinary girls into something much greater: a forever mystery that will color the rest of their lives.
Mustang’s narration comes from a very different source: the youngest of the five sisters, Lale. She’s personally immersed in the situation, and that change alone makes for a very different film than The Virgin Suicides. Her naivety and innocence initially keeps some of the harsher elements of the story at a distance, but as the story progresses, she becomes the ultimate heroine: a spirited young woman who refuses to let her life be something not in her own control.
Taking place in a small Turkish village by the Black Sea, fear of female sexuality is a constant theme throughout Mustang. When the innocent play of five orphaned sisters – Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), and Lale (Günes Sensoy) – is misconstrued as illicit behavior, the girls are imprisoned in their own home, and given constant lessons in wifely duties in preparation for them to become brides.
The girls’ imprisonment is spurred by something wholly innocent: they’re chicken fighting with some boys on the beach, which requires the girls to sit on the boys’ shoulders. But the girls’ grandmother interprets this as something shockingly different. “Pleasuring yourselves on boys’ necks…you’re depraved!” she screams at them, right before systematically beating each girl in order from oldest to youngest. From that moment on, it’s as if they’ve instantly transformed in the eyes of their grandmother and uncle. The girls are forced to wear long brown shapeless dresses to avoid tempting men, because they’re no longer carefree young girls — they are ticking time bombs, sensual women standing on the edge of promiscuity, who could soon be deemed ruined and unmarriable at any given moment.
But through all the chaos, the girls still have each other. The five sisters, played to perfection by newcomers, have wonderful chemistry, and a certain subtle naturalism about them that guides the entire movie. The scenes of the girls just lounging around together are some of the best of the film, and supply the necessary levity: The youngest giggles and sticks out her flat chest as she models her older sister’s bra; the girls lay together in a heap of tangled limbs, relishing the sun shining through the window on them. Mustang is undeniably a somber look at the state of women’s rights in repressed patriarchal societies, but it’s certainly not without hope.