Comment: 'Mustang' (2015) & the Wife Factory
‘If I had the body and voice of an alpha male, it would be easier’
- Deniz Gamze Egüven
by Lottie Whalen
“Our house became a wife factory” observes Lale, the narrator of Deniz Gamze Egüven’s mesmerizing Oscar-nominated (debut) film Mustang. We are just fifteen minutes in, but already a world away from the exhilarating opening scenes, in which Lale and her four older sisters frolic in the sea with a group of boys before boldly sauntering home through the village streets. En route, they stop to pick apples from a tree – forbidden fruit, both literally and metaphorically. The sudden appearance of the angry landowner brandishing a gun foreshadows the darker turn the film will take. Filtered through the perspective of an interfering neighbor, however, the girls’ carefree antics become transgressive and suspicious; returning home to their furious grandmother and uncle Erol – who care for the orphan girls - they are chastised for sexually inappropriate behaviour. Drastic consequences follow and Lale, like the audience, can only watch in despair as the boundaries of the sisters’ world rapidly contract around them. Bars are placed on the windows, school is swapped for lessons in cooking and housekeeping, and anything liable to corrupt the girls is placed under lock and key. Occasional acts of kindness provide respite for both the girls and the audience. After the sisters sneak out to a football match and are spotted on TV by their aunts, one hurriedly sabotages the village’s electricity supply in order to prevent their male relatives watching. Yet the women’s understanding only stretches so far: the next day, more bars go up at the windows. Throughout the film all too brief moments of sympathy are smothered by the weight of the traditions and morality of a strictly patriarchal society.
Inevitably, the film has drawn comparisons with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. Whilst there are some obvious parallels, Mustang’s sisters are much more vividly realized and irrepressibly alive. Unlike Coppola’s film, where the perspective of a male narrator frames the Lisbon sisters’ lives and the audience is placed at a voyeur-like distance, Egüven allows us to experience close up both the joyful rebellions and the increasing claustrophobia that dominate the girls’ lives. Günes Sensoy’s remarkably assured debut performance as narrator Lale provides the audience’s insight into the spirited attitude with which the sisters confront their increasingly troubling situation. It is this indomitable boldness, along with the girls’ flowing hair and long limbs, bared defiantly despite the ‘shit-coloured’ sacks their grandma makes for them, that brilliantly evoke the wild horse referred to in the film’s title. In the main, the sisters’ restless motion is repeatedly frustrated: scenes of an increasingly desperate Lale revving the engine of her uncle’s car, unable to make it move, sum up the sisters’ predicament.
Marriage is the only means of a legitimate escape from the home, yet it’s made clear that this entails switching one domestic prison for, another. “I fucked the entire world” states eldest sister Selma impassively, laid out in her wedding dress whilst a doctor examines her vagina. It is the morning after the wedding, and, horrified to discover that she she has not bled after sex, her new in-laws rush her to the hospital. ‘Your husband is not very romantic, is he’ smiles the doctor, to which Selma simply replies ‘I don’t know him’. Her hymen, it turns out, is still intact, and the doctor questions why she would make such an outlandish false claim. Unsure, she can only offer a confused answer: “I had sex with someone and forgot…Nobody believes me when I say I’m a virgin. I wanted to disappear”. Selma’s lack of autonomy over her body leads her to doubt her own experiences. Her words are worthless, and her body – the body that can belong only to either a virgin, a mother or a whore – is the site on to which society’s convenient ‘truths’ are projected. The doctor’s findings neatly underline how absurd this system is.
Language, or control of language, is a crucial means of enforcing and resisting the rigid patriarchal structure depicted in Mustang. In ‘The Public Voice of Women’, Professor Mary Beard cites an incident in the Odyssey, which sees Telemachus effectively tell his mother Penelope to shut up and get back to her weaving ‘for speech is the business of man’: the start, Beard suggests, of an ‘active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech’. More than simply exclusion, however, the belittling of women’s speech works ‘to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say’. Elsewhere, Beard refers to Cassandra, the prophetess cursed never to be believed after she spurned the advances of Apollo, as an example of the lack of authority commanded by women’s speech – ‘even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to the listener’. Interestingly, discussing the disadvantages faced by women directors, Ergüven suggests: ‘I have a soft voice and I wear clothes with flowers on, and heels, and I come across as fragile, even if that is not the case at all. If I had the body and voice of an alpha male, it would be easier.’
This is, ultimately, painfully true for Lale and her sisters. The girls are tainted by the gossip of their conservative neighbours and their protestations of innocence are not believed; in the family’s eyes, the girls swiftly turn from children to ‘depraved dirty whores’ who must be rushed off for virginity tests. Uncle Erol’s words betray the fear of female sexuality that is so pervasive, and so troubling, around the world. While ‘for women in Turkey it’s like the middle ages’ (Ergüven’s words), the film comments on issues that stretch far beyond any specific region.
Lale’s glimpses of her uncle Erol prowling through the girls’ bedrooms at night mark the sinister unraveling of his sexualisation of their bodies and carefree, innocent behavior. This scenario is all too familiar, and gestures towards the slut shaming and victim blaming that women everywhere face on a daily basis. Mustang highlights the ways in which society inscribes its own truths, its own judgments, on female bodies; bodies that must be contained and controlled in order to uphold structural inequalities in stubbornly patriarchal societies.