Though set in Turkey, shot in Turkish, and telling a Turkish story about the demonization of female sexuality, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s beautifully mounted debut, “Mustang,” has an unmistakable West European sensibility. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on audience perspective, but while many Turks will find the final salvation distinctly inorganic, few can argue with the director’s talent or that of her exceptionally fine, largely unknown cast of young women. Set in a remote Black Sea village where five sisters are forced to suppress their burgeoning sensuality, “Mustang” will gallop through fruitful festival fields, finding fertile pastures on Euro arthouse screens.
School’s just out, and five orphan sisters join their male classmates for a boisterously innocent beachside frolic. A scandalized headscarf-wearing neighbor reports them to their grandma (Nihal Koldas), who accuses them of pleasuring themselves on the shoulders of their boy peers. The perplexed girls, barely aware of their sexual aura, are beaten by their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) for acting like whores.
After subjecting them to virginity tests, Erol locks them in the house and Grandma removes anything likely to be “perverting”: skimpy or clinging clothing, cell phones, computers, makeup. A team of aunties come to teach the sisters domestic skills: as the superfluous voiceover says, “the house became a wife factory.” A brief moment of freedom, when the youngest sister, Lale (Gunes Nezihe Sensoy), engineers their escape to attend a liberating all-female spectator soccer match, results in gates and bars installed over the windows.
Local families with marriageable sons are invited over, yet Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), the eldest, refuses to wed anyone other than her b.f., Ekin (Enes Surum). She’s lucky since at least she gets to choose: Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) is paired with dullard Osman (Erol Afsin), whom she accepts with catatonic resignation. The marriage train is steamrolling ahead, with passive-aggressive Ece (Elit Iscan) next in line, followed by Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu).
It’s impossible to watch this presentation of blossoming female sexuality without thinking of “The Virgin Suicides,” minus the male-generated perspective Sofia Coppola employed. While spanning age ranges from prepubescent to nubile, the sisters here share a liberating innocence that’s demonized by a warped understanding of natural development and the misguided belief that it’s possible to cut young women off from an ever-increasing pop-culture connectivity. No adult talks to these girls about sex – Grandma leaves an old paperback primer on Sonay’s bed before her wedding, but Sonay’s way ahead of the game, engaging in anal intercourse with Ekin long before marriage, to avoid puncturing her hymen and failing the all-important blood-on-the-sheets display.
Erguven’s script, co-written with French helmer-scripter Alice Winocour, is patently designed to show how conservative morality, literally and figuratively (the latter overdone), imprisons women, equating natural development with sinful urges. Early scenes have a potently idyllic sense of freedom, playing on adult unease of innocent sexuality so acutely captured in Sally Mann’s photographs, and the masses of luxuriant hair each young woman conspicuously sports clearly touches on the traditional Muslim world’s heightened awareness of female tresses.
Largely raised in France, Erguven seems to have her eye on the Western market, offering a form of deliverance most Turks with arthouse tastes will find naive at best. There are several first-film missteps, particularly Lale’s voiceover, which insists on telling what’s already obvious onscreen. Revealing Uncle Erol as a child molester, but only of Nur, is both psychologically unlikely (why just one sister?) and unnecessarily heavy-handed. However, the director proves especially skilled with her cast of newcomers (of the thesps playing the sisters, only young Iscan, from “My Only Sunshine,” is a veteran), whose powerful individualism as well as their vibrant bond together are perfect vessels for the script’s message.
Visuals are maturely fluent in keeping with current arthouse aesthetics, with a particularly satisfying interplay of energetic and confined camera movements reflecting the situation inside and outside the increasingly prison-like house. Mathilde Van de Moortel’s editing has a dexterous elasticity, building excitement and tension at just the right moments — the soccer scenes feel over-the-top, yet they function as pressure-releasers, and the build-up to the finale, whatever its implausibility, gets the heart racing. Warren Ellis’ music further ties the pic to an identifiable international cinema scene.