Mustang: A modern-day fairytale?

As I arrived (late) to a recent private preview at Watershed, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was walking in to. I scrabbled around in the dark, waiting for my pupils to dilate, and then the film began.

I was hooked, instantly. It grabbed me within seconds and didn't let me go until long after I'd left the cinema. In fact I think it's still holding on to some part of me even now. That's how beautiful Mustang is.

The début feature from Turkish-French writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang tells the story of five young sisters on that stark yet subtle threshold between girl and womanhood.

When a neighbour complains that the girls (who were playing an innocent game) have been, "rubbing their private parts on boys necks," their world, as youngest sister and protagonist Lale puts it, quickly "turns to shit."

Terrified by their burgeoning sexuality, the girls' grandmother and uncle take drastic steps to sanitise, confine and ultimately marry it off. They are stripped of all possessions that might further corrupt them and held captive in their house-come-'wife factory', learning how to sew and make dolmades.

It's a modern-day fairy tale (orphaned princesses locked in a tower awaiting rescue) so the film has an entirely appropriate timeless quality: is there anything more timeless than fearing and confining female sexuality?

But the sisters are a force, a united front. Despite occasional (and touchingly universal) bickering about the unasked borrowing of bras, or whatever, the strength of their love is boundless and speaks of a wider female solidarity.

This solidarity doesn't just play out between the sisters. One of my favourite scenes is when an aunt short circuits the village electricity supply to stop them getting caught doing something they shouldn't.

It's an act of love as funny as it is profound but it also gives an insight into that aunt's own wildness, her own willingness to disobey. How many of these women once roamed free, playing innocent games with boys before they were held hostage to their own puberty?

The boys we see at the beginning of the film, who were in no way punished for playing the same, innocent game, will never be held hostage in the same way. They can use their developing bodies however they want to. They can interact with each other and the natural world which surrounds them. They can play with girls; their bodies belong to them.

Not so the sisters. They can't be trusted to steer their own ships. Their ownership is compromised.

But the film returns their bodies to them. Ergüven's gaze is unapologetically female and feminist and makes us look, and look closely, at all the things their bodies do, not just that one, supposedly terrifying, thing.

They're shot from all angles and bathed in a golden light throughout. They play and lie in collapsed, sisterly piles. They pretend to swim through their bed sheets. They misbehave. They pull faces. They laugh. They feel and act on desire. They are alive.

I watched Mustang is a room full of other women. There were few dry eyes by the end. As I left the cinema, I wondered how many of those tears were tears of recognition?

Recognition of your teenage body being branded with a shame you can't possibly understand. Recognition of the unflinching solidarity between women, and its antithesis. Recognition of the violence and aggression of men who are (perhaps) terrified of the female sexuality within themselves. Who knows?

One thing I can say for sure is that Mustang is an incredibly affecting watch.

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