When five orphan girls are seen innocently playing with boys on a beach, their scandalized conservative guardians confine them while forced marriages are arranged in Mustang (IMDb).
Written by Denize Gamze Ergüven & Alice Winocour | Directed by Ergüven
In limited theatrical release
The previous year saw the limited, quiet release of a particularly strong film that is calling out to be seen. The film I am referring to is Denize Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, a current contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
The film follows five sisters, all teenagers living in a provincial Turkish town, who see their lives become more censored, more monitored, and more controlled by their elder family members and who find various ways to fight for their independence.
If you haven’t made the connection already yourself, countless critics have and have made a point to mention in their reviews the surface similarities between Mustang and Sofia Coppola’s 2000 film The Virgin Suicides, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel. That film also depicts five sisters who, after the youngest commits suicide and the next youngest begins breaking curfews and showing interest in boys, have their freedom stripped away from them by their parents to an extreme degree.
This comparison isn’t unfounded, but to compare the two is an easy option and coasts over not just the importance of the factors that make them similar, but the crucial differences that ultimately make them two distinct stories rather than an original story and a rehash that came 15 years later.
I don’t blame viewers for being quick to compare the two films. Let’s do a quick rundown of what they share: five sisters, all in the prime puberty years – say, a minimum age 11 to maximum 18. They are punished by their family members, usually one parent more viciously than the other. In Suicides the religious mother instigates the lockdown with the meek father going along with it seemingly because he figures he has to, while in Mustang the uncle of their deceased parents decides he knows what’s best for these girls and how to crack down on their behavior, while their overwhelmed grandmother goes along with his ideas because she’s desperate for help.
Largely out of fear of their young girl’s developing womanhood and sexuality – whether prominent or not, they are quick to shame the girls for sexual acts they have not done – the family locks up the five sisters in their own home. They restrict what they can wear, watch or listen to. In Suicides that means their mother designs their modest homecoming dance dresses, sits with the girls as they watch TV, and burns her daughter Lux’s rock records. In Mustang the girls are made to wear brown linen dresses with long hems and sleeves that hang loosely. The girls are not allowed to watch a football match on TV because that would mean being alone in a room with men. Each film features at least one suicide, as well at least one daughter who risks greater punishment by sneaking out and having clandestine sex.
While it may be tempting to insinuate that Ergüven got the general idea from Suicides, the inciting incident of her story is inspired by a real experience from her youth in conservative Turkey. It is a sad and tragic circumstance – and likely very telling of reality – that we have at least two cinematic portrayals of the agency and natural sexuality of young girls being monitored and/or stripped away methodically by adults who are supposed to be nurturing them. If it wasn’t already clear enough for you – I supposed “you” being anyone who isn’t a woman – girls have faced this kind of absurd oppression for almost as many years as they have existed and the similarity existing between two films, one set in 1970s America and the other in present-day Turkey, shouldn’t point to any lack of creativity, but rather a startling preponderance of this situation occurring in our supposedly modern world.
The Virgin Suicides
While the directors and screenwriters of both films happen to be women – an unfortunate rarity most of the time, especially for Oscar-nominated films – the original novel of The Virgin Suicides was written by a man. That places the author at an unavoidable remove from his female subjects, a distance he attempts to compensate for by making the unnamed narrator of his novel an adult version of a neighborhood boy mystified by the five Lisbon girls. This narration is kept in the film, and the group of five boys becomes an unavoidable lens through which we must view the girls.
The narrator has several removes from the Lisbon girls – the characters who, lest we forget, all of the action is actually happening to and involving (the boys just watch). He is one of the neighborhood boys who learns what he can about the girls by looking at them at school, going to one home party with them, hearing stories from their ex-boyfriends or homecoming dates and digging through their trash. They aren’t even friends with the girls, yet they persist in telling us how they were. The narrator is also telling this story from several decades in the future – we know this by his reference to their current state as “men with wives” who always seem to reconnect over the Lisbon mystery. The outsider narrator, with the added remove of several years – plenty of time for memories to be warped – produces an unreliable narrator, one ill-equipped to speak for these girls and what they really did, thought and felt in the last year of their lives.
As you begin to look closer at what the narrator says, you begin to realize his perspective – given to him by a male author – is a conception of female life and the attribution of mystery to that life, given when you have never been and will never be a woman yourself. The boys spend the entire novel and film attempting to understand these girls, making hasty judgments in the process. For instance, while examining 13-year-old Celia’s diary, the oldest boy Tim “analyzes” her handwriting and decides “what we have here is a dreamer, someone completely out of touch with reality.” To paraphrase Celia from earlier in the film: “you’ve obviously never been a 13-year-old girl.” After enough analyzing of the Lisbon girls’ belongings the narrator goes as far to say “we felt the imprisonment of being a girl.” As nice as empathy is to have, the boys have no real idea of girlhood in general or the Lisbon sisters specifically just from their inferences made from old diaries and moments seen through a telescope.
What is more detrimental to the representation of these girls –and women in general – is that, as much as the parents who suffocate them do so out of some mixture of fear and preoccupation with the girls’ sexuality, the boys who claim to want to help them are just as fixated on the same things. The boys sexualize and objectify the girls to the very end: as the guys go to the Lisbon house, prepared to use one of their parents’ cars to take them all away, they still fall for Lux’s distraction technique of flirting. She coyly unbuckles one of the boy’s belts and asks who’s going to sit next to her in the car. Once she leaves they seem giddy with excitement, perhaps at the prospect of finally getting to live out their vague fantasies. But of course, it’s too late. While they whisper excitedly Therese, Bonnie, Mary and Lux slowly die in the house around them.
What the boys miss – and if you’re not careful, what you the viewer may miss while watching The Virgin Suicides through the lens of the young boys – is that the girls had their right to live their own life and to make their own decisions. That is what they lost, and what they wanted. The injustices ran from Lux having to burn her rock records, to pulling the girls out of school, even though Therese is a year away from graduating. They are forbidden to become adults and do everything which that entails. That loss of growth and autonomy is what they are fighting against when they take what little control they have left to end their lives. For them, it is the only conceivable way out and the ultimate protest and assertion of self.
The boys see the suicides as a sign that they “hadn’t heard us calling…them from out of those rooms, where they went to be alone for all time… and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.” They never realize that the girls had never asked to be put back together. And who can say the boys were really calling for them?
Mustang is already ahead of The Virgin Suicides in terms of perspective authenticity, as it is an original story written by a woman and inspired by real events she has experienced as a young woman. This already guarantees an insight into the situation which Eugenides’ perspective by nature could not have.
The film does employ narration, albeit rarely. The narrator for this story is the youngest daughter, Lale, speaking from at least a few years in the future. This narration, although removed from the events by time, is more reliable than the narrator of Suicides because it is told by a first-hand participant in the events. She also makes less assumptions and conjectures than the boy, even when she could – and when we do, as an audience. She simply tells us some facts to move the story along and hold our interest.
While the parents, specifically the mother, in Suicides are alone in their hell-bent attempt to contain their children – the neighborhood gawks and gossips, but doesn’t help either – the guardians of the five sisters are driven more by the pressure of neighborhood gossip as well as small-town traditionalism in gender roles. Their grandmother has been raising the girls since their parents died about 10 years ago, with occasional input by their uncle. One day, after the girls enjoy a spirited game of chicken in the ocean with some male friends, she starts to hear gossip about them from a nosy neighbor – one who equates sitting on someone’s shoulders to “rubbing your genitals against the boy’s neck.” The grandmother is overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to punish them effectively. The uncle steps in and tells her what to do, which leads to the eventual: removal of their phones and makeup, the replacement of their modern clothes with traditional modest dresses, their removal from school and lessons in cooking and cleaning, and the addition of bars to all the windows and doors of the property. Soon they figure it’s best to start marrying the girls off to respectable men who can control them and take over the parental role they have grown exhausted by. The two eldest, Salay and Selma, are quickly married.
Every sister has a different fate, and a different reaction to her fate. We see them as individual personalities, rather than one collective. The benefit of having a woman’s perspective – both from the author and the narrator – guide the experience of the viewer is that we get to see the real, intimate female experience, the kind that can only come from the truth of living within it. We see the girls as individuals and humans from the start, not just “burgeoning” women or sexual beings. They may be those things, but that is such a small part of who they are and what they want.
As their previous liberties are stripped away we see the girls fight to do everyday things they should have a right to do, such as watch a football match. We also see the real response a woman understands: we’re going to fight. Suicides portrays the girls as depressed and resigned because of the mystery given to them by the enamored young boys. We do not get to see many examples of them asserting their rights and autonomy. Lux quietly rebels, similar to Ece in Mustang, but we never get to be too close to any of them to really understand their process and mental states. Because of that we may fail to see the depth of their losses and the meaning of their deaths.
What Mustang understands and conveys truthfully and without impediment is that women fight. Because we have to, because we are people entitled to lives of our own and power over our selves. What burns the most in Mustang is that the adults don’t even believe the girls when they assert their “goodness.” Selma has to take two “virginity” tests, including one on her wedding night because she doesn’t bleed. They are guilty before proven guilty, which is so indicative of the way people have perceptions about the truthfulness of women, or their weakness – seen every time the uncle or grandmother is shocked when the girls dare to speak up.
While these two films are easy to compare, the ultimate and important difference between them is in the perspective from which they were written. The Virgin Suicides is about girls from a male perspective; therefore they see their weakness (suicide as a refusal to “hear us calling them out of those rooms”) and sexuality or “lack” thereof. The boys obsess over Lux and Trip’s relationship and what it could have meant (but was it anything more than just the usual teenage heartbreak?). They compare all the women in their future to the enigmatic Lisbon girls. We don’t get to see the sisters fight over the small things that make up their everyday life. We can only guess at why they did the things they did.
Mustang is narrated from within the group of sisters. We see their everyday joys and their innocence – made all the more sad because none of the adults think that they have innocence. The female creator understands that they will fight as much as they can to maintain who they are in the face of people trying to mold them and crush it out – so most of the girls survive. Some have a fate just as bad as death, just as “unfair” and equal in deprivation of the life they should be living. Two of them fight so fiercely and persistently that they manage to escape. We see their strength at every turn in the road and if one of them does happen to “give in” to circumstance, we understand it as their own method for claiming their lives and future back for themselves.
Seeing Mustang is like getting to see The Virgin Suicides again, with different eyes. We can see how it might have turned out differently, we can see how those pesky boys got in the way of us ever possibly understanding the Lisbon girls. By the finale of Mustang we have understood the importance of every single fight for freedom and autonomy these girls have undertaken. That allows us, in retrospect, to imagine the thoughts of the Lisbons. Their suicides are no longer seen as a regrettable incident caused by their inability to hear help supposedly offered to them, they are a bold and final declaration and reclamation of autonomy over the girls’ lives. What the boys never understood, but what all women know to be true about ourselves, is that we fight.
photos: screenshots by the author from movieclips & unifrance trailers, film
next week: all the Oscars you can handle…