Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Mustang

by Cait Cannon
Jodie Foster was recently quoted saying Hollywood execs “still see women as a risk, [...] Sometimes it's hard for people to understand how to treat me as a leader because they're sometimes waiting for me to punch them in the face, which I'm not going to do, or sometimes they're waiting for me to say, 'Oh, gee, you sound so smart, why don't I just do it your way?' I'm neither one nor the other, and sometimes [that’s] confusing for people."

And while I definitely read that in Clarice’s southern drawl, and would pay big money to see Jodie Foster punch a room full of executives in their faces, it bums me out that this is still hot button issue in 2016. So, I went into this week with a bit of a different intention in how I’m watching and talking about movies. I’m a writer (as well as a girl. Surprise!), and while I love movies as much as the next guy, I’m getting more and more dissatisfied with the limited discussion surrounding female movie makers. Admittedly, I’m a huge part of the problem. By not making an effort to educate myself on up and coming female directors—talking about their styles, debut movies, successes and failures—I haven’t been doing enough to change what I feel is such a problem: we don’t talk about women in movies in the same way we talk about men.

So, if you like powerful women as much as I do, stay tuned for more reviews to come about badass ladies making sometimes bad and sometimes badass movies. This week, I’m excited to chat about the directorial debut of Deniz Gamze Ergüwen: Mustang.
Oft compared to The Virgin Suicides, Mustang follows five orphaned sisters as they deal with the rapidly-closing-in constraints of their grandma’s and uncle’s abusive parenting. What begins as early summer fun with the neighborhood boys spirals into a village controversy—ultimately leading to the hyper-sexualization and terrible misunderstanding of the girls. Through the eyes of the youngest sister, Lale, we watch the sisters get married off and deal with their lack of control in different ways. We watch their home transform into a prison and that it’s not so easy to just walk away from the things that tether you.

Throughout the film, the girls fight to not be seen as sexual beings, or at least be in charge of when they’re to be seen in such a light. There’s a candid intimacy with how the girls are shown playing and comforting each other. The story flip flops between the parent-figures’ paranoia and worry and the girls trying to make the best of their situation through play, comfort, and small moments of escape. Despite being set in a tiny Turkish village off the coast of the Black Sea, the story is relatable and develops into an honest portrayal of sibling relationships and spirit.
While the five-girls-trapped-by-paranoid-parental-figures is present in both Virgin Suicides and Mustang, we’re seeing that structure from two radically different perspectives. On the Virgin Suicides side of things, we are looking through the eyes of the neighborhood boys. The girls come off as elusive, almost mythical, creatures that are equally unpredictable as they are irrational. The girls are sexualized, framed as incidents of interests and not people; we only know them through gossip and the boys’ speculation. Contrarily, Mustang, while somewhat private, lets us get to know the girls just by watching them without the filter of village gossip. We see them as they see themselves. They animate each other and goof around. Like girls do in real life.

The thing that Mustang does so effectively, and most impressively, is layer all its parts in such a fashion that nothing is out of place or inefficient. In an interview, Ergüwen talks about how she designed the plot to function like a series of watch gears; it is hard to take apart and understand each piece separately but, looking at everything as a whole, the parts gel and we’re invited to dig deeper into connections between those parts. In this way, Lale and her four sisters function as one, ten legged character (insert Human Centipede reference here...too much? Sorry). At first, we’re sort of attacked by the giggling and screaming of all these girls, and at first I didn’t think I was going to end up liking these characters, let alone relating to them. As the house empties and Lale shifts into center stage, we can appreciate how complex and resilient these young ladies are. They barrel the plot forward with a blend of humor, sadness, and strength. Ergüwen also spoke lengths to her desire that we not take pity on the girls—even while bad shit is happening, they never give up fighting against their situation.

It’s a movie that channels a witch-hunt, a prison break, and a coming of age story all at once. Ergüwen manages to pastiche old narratives together to make something new and refreshing. Beyond an empowering depiction of girls, the movie is just really, really f’ing good. It shows that focusing on women in film can be more than a cautionary tale or a damaged-girl-turned-badass. I think the last couple years have been very good to female leads, so let’s make the next couple years be just as good to the women behind the camera.

11 comments:

  1. Sign me up! I'll commit to paying more attention to women filmmakers this year, yeah! Wow I'm so happy for this article (and your future ones on the topic) because Im also feeling increasingly impatient for more of the true presence of women in movies. I'll definitely see Mustang, thanks! I couldn't deal with The Virgin Suicides for the reasons you mentioned. I definitely felt like I, being someone who wanted to relate to the girls to actually UNDERSTAND them more, was not the intended audience.

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    1. I have to say I plum forgot TVS was by Sophia Coppola. Maybe she just had a major girl crush on Kirsten Dunst (understandable). So anyway, there's that. There are women filmmakers who make/would make films that perpetuate identifying women only through the perspective of men and manic-pixie-dreamgirl them up. I can understand. I can imagine it's not easy to make a feminist story. Part of the reason I'm drawn to them is because I'm not sure I know what they are or look like, I don't know what I'll see in them about women and hopefully about myself. It's a big struggle sometimes to see myself through my own perception and not fall back on men's perceptions of me. It's not easy to always know what your own perception is. That's for everyone, I'm sure. I think Hollywood is actually just as horrible to men. I do believe where we can find stories that truly serve women, we will find them that truly serve men, too.

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    2. I'm with you on much of this, but I suspect you might be too kind when you say that Hollywood is just as horrible to men. I'm sure that there are examples of this because Hollywood seems to be horrible to human beings in general, but everything I know tells me that it is far worse to women. Whether this is a chicken/egg scenario I can't say, but just today I came across three separate stories that single out just how badly women are treated on both sides of the screen. Cait's pieces spotlighting female filmmakers couldn't come at a better time.

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    3. I super appreciate you being a man and saying this. I do mean what I said, though- it's just my personal beliefs. Men have privilege over women. But I think it's a disservice to men to degrade women and see women degraded. Because how is that a good reality to have, how is that a sustainable reality? How are you ever going to learn to relate to women in good ways and have women relate to you if women are degraded in everyone's eyes? It's like a ...violent blindness, but it's not good for anyone to be blind. I went to a place once where I REALIZED how privileged I am in the ways I am. I saw the rest of the picture. You can think you are, but I don't think you can be whole without the rest of the picture.

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  2. "Stay tuned for more reviews to come about badass ladies making sometimes bad and sometimes badass movies."

    YES!!!!! It's super important to talk about when women make bad movies too! And hopefully one day we just talk about filmmakers regardless of gender. That's the goal right?

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  3. Great review, Cait. Gonna hunt this one down. Thanks for the focus on female storytellers -- It's something I'd like to expand my knowledge on, too. Also, to kind of stick up for Sofia Coppola, I think that The Virgin Suicides is actually adapted from a male-written novel drawn from a young boy's memory, so in that sense, her dreamy, girl-crush atmosphere works a bit better.

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    1. Yes! It's adapted from the book by Jeffrey Eugenides. I'm also not trying to throw Coppola under the bus at all (Especially because how shitty would it be to hate on women in a pro-women column...) I was more thinking that by comparing the two films, the two very different perspectives kinda get swept under the rug; I felt it was important to call out the distinction. Thanks!

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    2. I love what you say here Cait, on this matter, 'The girls come off as elusive, almost mythical, creatures that are equally unpredictable as they are irrational. The girls are sexualized, framed as incidents of interests and not people; we only know them through gossip and the boys’ speculation.' This so brilliantly words some points I am chasing at the moment in my dissertation. I am writing 15, 000 words for my MA and I chose to do it on How Hollywood presents women on mental health issues. It is one of the prototypes I am going to mention, the elusive, irrational, meloncholic. It is a subject I am very passionate about!

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    3. Your thesis sounds interesting!

      And yup. Did you also notice how the girls have no verbal sister relationships almost at all? I don't even remember any of the other sisters having any lines. It seems like they went to lengths to cast sisters with little resemblance to and weren't as pretty as Kirsten Dunst, so they weren't even memorable. The situation the sisters are in is RIPE for good dialogue - it's like almost as good as it gets- young girls stuck together.

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  4. Great review yo. I'm excited to be hearing about more female driven story telling from you soon. My two sisters, the younger of which is gay, and my mom are all movie lovers along with me, and from a very young age I was always trying to find the movies that could speak to them, that came from their world. What I soon found out is that that can be a struggle. There just isn't enough female driven movies. Of course there are movie with a female lead, but the vast majority of writers and directors, where the true story comes from, are dudes. Dudes had their hundred years of movie making, and I am among what is hopefully a large number of men who feel that it is time to pass the damn torch. So I will definitely be checking MUSTANG out, probably with one of my sisters. Thanks for doing the leg work, Cait!

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  5. I am very excited to read your upcoming series on female badassdom! I don't think I have commented before on your articles, I apologise and say hi now! Great to see another writer, especially another lady one/additional lady fhead! I have yet to see Mustang so thank you for this recommendation.
    I too would pay good money to see Jodie punch people in the face! When she says that about them waiting to hear her say how smart they are, I find that so dissapointing, especially as she is a woman who gratuated from Yale! But it rings so true and you still see it all over movies coming out this and last year. Have you seen many of the films Jodie has been part of making? I am so excited about Money Monster!
    Something you might be interested in checking out is Geena Davis' work/campaigning with her Institute on Gender in Media Educationon, surrounding these issues: http://seejane.org
    Also a film that she is one of the talking heads: Miss Representation.
    Another thing I will add is the company Wolfe has some interesting films mentioned in their dvd section as well as making a few films of their own as well as working with Soul Kiss. Made by females, about females and showing a diversity in enthnicity and ethnicity also. An example of one of their films is one near and dear to my heart, Elena Undone: http://www.outsidetheframe.co.uk/?p=452

    I will say again this idea for an article series is one I really love, very cool to get more discussion about female led films!

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