How many compromises does important material warrant? Mustang’s subject matter is certainly important, even vital, given that the rising tide of religiously motivated conservatism in Turkey is a genuine threat to the freedoms many take for granted, not least of which younger generations. Yet France-based director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s blinkered commitment to her theme is ultimately as stifling as the house her five teenage protagonists become imprisoned in, as plausibility and nuance are repeatedly sacrificed on the altar of creating not just a message, but a suitably marketable one. Even when you’re locked up, people still like to see a pretty face.
School is out for the summer in northern Anatolia and sisters Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) decide to walk home via the beach. In a perfectly color-coordinated swirl of soggy school uniforms and damp hair, they splash around innocently on the shore with some boys from school, the mournful synth washes on the soundtrack the only indication that this might be the end of something. Sure enough, on their arrival home, their clucking grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) wastes no time in checking to see if they’re all still intact, with their ogre-like uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) even driving them to the doctor to make sure. Youthful impetuousness grinds against one-dimensional authority, ultimately leading to the girls being imprisoned in their own home, five wonderfully photogenic princesses confined to a conservative fortress.
While the speed of the girls’ incarceration could be read as an attempt to mirror the speed with which disapproval can tip over into control, it smacks far more of narrative necessity than nuanced exploration. Even a fairy tale requires some degree of shading. If the grandmother and the uncle are so conservatively minded, why have the sisters been seemingly able to enjoy total liberty until now, as their headstrong attitude, relationships with the local boys, and entirely secular clothing seem to suggest? It would appear that it’s easier to break a theme down into one contrived tipping point rather than a thornier set of fits and starts.
Similar questions also arise with respect to the details of the girls’ captivity. So they’re canny enough to sneak out again and again unnoticed, but not sly enough to retrieve their mobile phones from the cupboard the grandmother has impounded them in? If the grandmother has confiscated all potential temptations, why are they still able to lounge around in revealing clothing, other than the fact that it permits more catalogue-ready images to be made?
The remainder of Mustang punctuates the sisters’ confinement with various episodes united by their contrivance, each of which intended to make the same unremitting point that once repression begins, there’s no stopping it. One such episode revolves around a trip to a football match in the nearby city of Trabzon which only women are able to attend, with football enthusiast Lale first of all trying to get permission from her uncle to go, before cutting loose with her sisters in tow when he refuses. Once at the stadium, their carefree, pop-video-like frolics aren’t only caught on camera, but also happen to be seen by one of the numerous, anonymous aunts on television back at the house, with another of their number subsequently sabotaging the fuse box to prevent the men from finding out and exploding. Upon their return, the renegades are met with more draconian measures.
This eye-rollingly improbable episode also neatly encapsulates Gamze Ergüven’s approach to her material as a whole, whereby pushing forward with the main theme is everything and details are only that. The frustrating thing is that interesting details do indeed abound: the Offside-evoking spectacle of a stadium of women taking advantage of an unlikely emotional conduit; the brief flicker of solidarity between the females within the system and those outside it; the long-haired, easygoing local hipster (Burak Yigit) who gives the girls a lift and seems to hint that the village may not be as blanket-all reactionary as it seems. But dropping hints is sadly not the same thing as allowing them to resonate, to say nothing of the idea of, God forbid, allowing a plot to be born of them rather than the other way around.
As sister after sister is married off and the weight of detention becomes unbearable for those left behind, the film’s restricted focus begins to pay dividends, as certain narrative twists are treated more mutedly than before. But the plot soon revs up again for the grand finale, whereby numerous innocuous elements suddenly click into place and the score swells into an unambiguous roar. The only question left open is the one Mustang likely didn’t mean to raise: Is finding five poster girls for a cause really enough?