'Mustang': Cannes Review

An affecting story in which rites of passage are denied and girlhood liberties crushed

Five Turkish adolescent sisters have their basic freedoms unjustly stripped from them in director Deniz Gamze Erguven's understated feminist drama.

The word Mustang, which is also the evocative title of Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven's stirring first feature, conjures vivid images of bands of wild horses roaming the untamed American West, their manes flying and their defiant spirits resistant to being broken. Those qualities also fit the five young sisters in this intimate drama, whose independence and burgeoning sexuality prompt their alarmed guardians to sequester the girls in a systematic campaign to break their unity and tame them into traditional female roles.

The eloquent story's art house prospects will be helped by its stinging relevance in a world where young women across many backgrounds continue to be culturally repressed.

Unfolding in a remote Black Sea coastal village in northern Turkey, the film opens as the orphaned sisters begin their summer break. The youngest of them, Lale (Gunes Sensoy), shows a particular fondness for her female teacher (Bahar Karimoglu), who is returning to Istanbul. Giddy with the euphoria that accompanies the end of any kid's school term, the girls walk home along the rocky beach, splashing about in innocent horseplay with some male classmates. With their long dark hair and slender bodies, they look like beautiful fairytale nymphs as they clown around, later raiding a farmer's overgrown apple orchard.

But their cheerful energy turns to dismay as their strict grandmother (Nihal Koldas) ushers them into their house on a hill. Informed by a villager who saw them cavorting on the beach, she fears the girls' virtue and their marriage prospects have been tarnished. Her hysteria is fanned by the angry reaction of their Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who is not above taking advantage of their supposed disgrace in the case of one of the girls. Despite the sisters' vehement denial of any wrongdoing, which is verified by medical examination, they are locked up behind closed doors. Potentially corrupting influences like phones and computers are removed, and they are outfitted in shapeless dung-colored frump dresses for rare outings in the village.

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As Lale describes it in a voiceover, the house becomes a "wife factory." The girls are given instruction by local women in traditional cooking and homemaking as their grandmother sets the wheels in motion to arrange marriages for each of them, starting with the eldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan).

There are mordant echoes here of the five Bennet daughters in Pride and Prejudice, whose mother's anxiousness to get them married off is a matter of financial rather than moral urgency. However, this is no comedy of manners. The more direct comparison is with the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides, but those doomed sirens become architects of their own isolation, almost as much as their overprotective parents.

Erguven and her co-screenwriter Alice Winocour (whose film Maryland screens in Un Certain Regard) are more interested in the girls' instinct for self-preservation as they strike back against their enforced captivity and the hurried plans being made for them. This binds them even closer together, at first in displays of harmless, often amusing rebellion and outspokenness, but gradually in spiraling desperation as some of them slide into numbed, even tragic acceptance. In an interview, Erguven referenced the multiheaded hydra creature from Greek mythology, and the film shows the steady weakening of the girls' collective force as each "head" is separated and subdued.

Shot in unfettered, naturalistic style in the atmospheric locations, Mustang has something of a frontier feel, an aspect nourished by the melancholy score of Warren Ellis, the Nick Cave collaborator known for his work on such unconventional Westerns as The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But Erguven's film is also a suspenseful if somewhat improbable prison-break movie (albeit one that eschews standard devices of the genre), in which the oppressive wardens believe they are acting in the best interests of their charges.

Only one of the five principals, Elit Iscan, has screen-acting experience, but all of them (the remaining two are Tugba Sunguroglu and Doga Doguslu) register strongly, both as individuals and as part of a tight-knit unit whose bone-deep allegiance no doubt was fortified by the loss of their parents.

What makes the transfixing film so effective is that the director refuses to portray them simplistically, as misunderstood angels, and she has enough trust in her audience to leave the drama's implicit feminism unstated. The story's quiet power comes from its sensitive observation of the characters as normal, emancipated young modern women, with healthy desires and curiosities, whose supposed transgressions are imagined and then magnified in the judgmental minds of others.

Production companies: CG Cinema, Vistamar Filmproduktion, Uhlandfilm, Bam Film, Kinology
Cast: Gunes Nezhe Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Screenwriters: Deniz Gamze Erguven, Alice Winocour
Producer: Charles Gillibert
Executive producers: Sadik Ekinci, Emre Oskay
Directors of photography: David Chizallet, Ersin Gok
Production designer: Serdar Yemiscu
Costume designer: Evrim Hn
Music: Warren Ellis
Editor: Mathilde van de Moortel
Casting directors: Kristin Diehle, Harika Uygur
Sales: Kinology

No rating, 98 minutes