Mustang” director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is Turkish. So is her entire cast, and that country is the location where her film was shot. Yet “Mustang” is the official nominee of France, not Turkey, for the Best Foreign Film category of the 2016 Oscars.
It’s true that co-productions have made such national distinctions far less meaningful than they once were. Even so, the idea that a film could be made in Turkey but represent France gets to the flaws of “Mustang.” Remember how the entire Muslim world seems to get called to denounce each act of violence committed by one of its members? This is a film that could have been made to reply. Its denunciation of Turkish patriarchy preaches to the converted, particularly Western liberals, every step of the way. I’d be far more impressed with “Mustang” if I thought it had a chance of reaching anyone who’d agree with its villains.
“Mustang” takes place 1,000 kilometers from Istanbul, in a village in Northern Turkey. School’s about to end for the summer. Five teenage sisters play on the beach with male classmates. A busybody from the neighborhood watches them and misreads their innocent fun as sexual and talks to their family. Deciding it’s time to teach the girls how to become brides, the girls’ guardians lock them inside and confiscate their cell phones and computers. One girl is married off, but her new in-laws freak out because there’s no blood on the sheet after she and her husband have sex. The younger girls grow closer and try to hatch an escape plan.
Ergüven does get lively performances out of her young cast. If they’re not getting a gigantic kick from each other’s company, they’re great actors. The loss of a sister to marriage really hurts. Additionally, the sunny cinematography keeps the film from feeling too grim, as does the constant camera movement.
A number of Iranian films –– Samira Makhmalbaf’s “The Apple,” Jafar Panahi’s “Offside,” Marziyeh Meshkini’s “The Day I Became a Woman” –– are evoked by “Mustang.” It seems to refer overtly to “Offside,” which depicted a group of girls in male drag trying to crash a guys-only soccer match. Here, the match is female-only, and, after an adventure on there way to it, the sisters arrive at the stadium, where the problem isn’t getting in but rather keeping their uncle from seeing their faces on TV. “The Apple” showed the real-life case of a man who locked up his daughter in his house; of course, such incidents aren’t unique to Iran. But Ergüven seems to have learned from such films’ feminist perspectives.
Unfortunately, she’s also learned how to tick off every box Westerners would expect from a film about Third World patriarchy: virginity tests, arranged marriage, wedding night expectations of broken hymens. Everything is here except female genital mutilation. She spares her heroines no humiliation, and just to make the point hit home even harder, she has one of them talk about how she’s still a virgin because she only has anal sex with her boyfriend.
The problem is that the film hypocritically critiques Turkish puritanism while missing no chance to go in the opposite direction by showing off its teenage cast in revealing clothes. By the third time we see them in their underwear, the family might have a valid point that they don’t understand the effects of their burgeoning sexuality, though their idea of locking them away from boys as a solution is awful.
The film also opportunistically neglects to mention Islam at all, although perhaps this was done to make its points more universal. The result isn’t Euro-pudding in the traditional sense, where Sophia Loren played a French Resistance fighter and Alain Delon a German officer, but it’s a sour mix that seems calculated to play better on the Upper West Side and Paris’ Left Bank than in Ankara.
MUSTANG | Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven | Cohen Media Group | In Turkish with English subtitles | Opens Nov. 20 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St. | lincolnplazacinema.com