At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.
Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.
But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.
The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.
The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.
Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.