Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Mustang" and the cinema of sisterhood

I admit I have a kind of reflexive habit to root for France when they are nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. I’m a Francophile, France tends to make good movies, they haven’t won Best Foreign Film in over twenty years, so why not root for them?

This year, though, I’ll be rooting for France out of something more than habit. Yesterday I went to see their nominated film, Mustang, and found it a lovely and accomplished piece of cinema. Moreover, it feels like an important film: an unabashedly feminine and feminist work, and one of the only female-directed films to score any Oscar nominations this year. (The only other nominations for female-helmed films are are three Documentary Shorts, one Documentary Feature, and a Best Song nod for Fifty Shades of Grey.) I am impressed with France for choosing a Turkish-language, Turkish-set film by a first-time director for their Oscar submission, and impressed that the Academy nominated it.

Mustang is the story of five sisters, ranging in age from maybe 11 to 17. Their parents are dead and they live with their grandmother and uncle in a small town on the Black Sea. (An incidental pleasure of Mustang was learning how beautiful this part of the world is, with rugged wooded mountains above smooth blue waters.) After the girls are caught horsing around with boys at the beach, their relatives lock them in the house, remove anything that might “corrupt” them, and set about trying to marry them off. But the girls fight back and sneak out and engage in many acts of overt and covert defiance. Their willpower and love and loyalty and lust for life cannot be contained.

So yes, there’s more than a hint of “what if The Virgin Suicides, but Turkish,” about this set-up. But then again, despite its female director, The Virgin Suicides is really a study of the male gaze, the fascination that the neighborhood boys have for the beautiful but inaccessible Lisbon sisters. Whereas Mustang is a wonderful example of the female gaze in cinema. It’s narrated by Lale, the youngest sister. Moreover, as a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to film these teenage girls in a way that honors their beauty and their power but never feels the least bit prurient or exploitative. And, while the situation of the Mustang sisters is much worse than that of the Virgin Suicides girls (no one ever threatened to marry the Lisbon sisters off against their will) they fight back more fiercely, they do not succumb to despair.

It’s a simple, fable-like story, but very well told. The climax is super tense and there were gasps in the movie theater at several moments when the girls were in danger. There’s also some interesting commentary on how older women often keenly enforce patriarchal values but on occasion will support the girls’ rebellion.

And, okay, since I self-produced a play in the summer of 2014 about beautiful long-haired young sisters struggling against patriarchal expectations (in fact my play’s poster has some similarities to the Mustang poster), this movie hits a particular soft spot of mine, but I can’t remember the last time I saw such a powerful depiction of sisterhood in cinema.

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