A Herd Of Wild Horses: ‘Mustang’ Reviewed

MUSTANG IS A FILM THAT UNRAVELS amidst tumbling swathes of dark hair, flicked both moodily and exuberantly; ringlets that fly out and tangle, only to be dutifully combed through. Turkish director Deniz Gamze Egüven’s debut film begins with sea-drenched hair, hanging from five adolescent girls’ heads, so wet it turns their school blouses transparent, revealing white training bras beneath. In a village on the Turkish coast, the five sisters – Nur, Ece, Selma, Sonay and Lale – play shoulder wars with the local boys. It is a beautiful and familiar scene, charged with the frisson of adolescence on the precipice of a long, hot summer. For the older three sisters at least, there is some flirtation with the boys. After all, there is an age at which a piggyback starts to feel tickling and strange, and good – perhaps even dangerously so – in a way you hadn’t known before.

In the eyes of conservative onlookers, the sisters were seen ‘rub[bing] their parts on the boys’ necks’. This obscene behaviour enrages their grandmother and uncle who enforce a house arrest. (The girls are orphaned but the circumstances of this are never elaborated on.) As the house is fortified, our vision is limited to increasingly cloistered, contracted shots; just a glimpse of the courtyard parapet, the sun streaming through the leaves of a tree and towards the world beyond. The girls resist – running away, breaking rules – but their imprisonment shows: skin grows paler, and their bodies are shrouded in dour ‘shit-coloured’ dresses as the house becomes, in the words of the youngest sister, Lale, ‘a wife factory’.

Egüven then presents a subversion of the traditional makeover montage (cf. Princess Diaries, Mean Girls, Jawbreaker) wherein the sisters, instead of discovering the potency of their burgeoning femininity with the help of lipstick and hair straighteners, have their sexuality curtailed. Cut to baking, sewing and duvet stuffing. This doesn’t stop Sonay, the eldest sister, from pressing her body against the window, hair swinging as she looks down at her illicit boyfriend in the garden below – the quintessential Rapunzel formation. But Sonay is in a rural Turkish village; drainpipes may be scaled but marriage is the only true way to escape from this house – that or death.

The hair is soon covered with red marriage veils as the eldest sisters are married off. Then the middle sister Ece’s whole body is covered, as she is lowered into her grave. This is a film about having and losing sisters, as much as it is about empowerment ‘sisterhood’. Sonay, Selma, Nur and Lale, reunited at the funeral, lie back on the bed, their hair forming a collective mourning veil – it is hard to differentiate who is who. Then it is hacked off, sewn onto stuffed heads as part of Nur and Lale’s escape plan. When a local truck driver finally helps the youngest two girls run away to Istanbul, he is marked out as different from the other men for he mirrors the girls with his long, ‘queer’, dark hair.

The Ford Mustang – an iconic 60s car – points towards Lale’s secret driving lessons, and the girls’ eventual escape at the wheel. (Surely the Ford Thunderbird from Thelma and Louise – the ultimate symbol of petroleum feminism – was in Egüven’s mind?) But, more significantly, a mustang is a breed of free-running, wild horse, and the mane is the film’s strongest image: a cascade of hair that follows the girls as they escape the house for a football match, as they play make-believe swimming on mattresses, as Sonay leads her boyfriend between the trees to the beach dressed only in a nightgown. The sisters are a force moving as one, a herd of wild horses, a Lernaean Hydra emerging from the Black Sea – terrifying and untameable.

—Lili Owen Rowlands

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