By Christopher Sharrett.
It occurs to me that the best (the only?) films seriously challenging the current international War on Women come from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, often by women filmmakers either unknown by many without access to foreign films, or quickly forgotten, because they cannot afford a second or third film, or because their most significant films don’t make it out of the large cities of the U.S. I don’t wish to sell short American filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt, Courtney Hunt, and Alice Granik, all of whom have produced important work, but I can’t think of anything as uncompromising, as harrowing, on the torment of women as Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015), or Catherine Corsini’s Partir (2009). There are some men making important films about the disaster facing women, notably Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), and most especially Beyond the Hills (2012), are uncompromising works. We tend, I think, not only to miss such art but, perhaps worse, take it for granted and think that in some way it will keep coming. Some weeks ago, Will Dodson informed me of the death of Ronit Elkabetz, the co-director of Gett and its stunning, extraordinary lead actor. I was and am heartsick over the sudden loss. Gett, along with Partir and Beyond the Hills, establish, without reservation or embarrassment, the idea of women imprisoned by the domicile or other institutions (religion) of patriarchal society. This work is now complemented by Mustang, which develops adroitly the literal imprisonment of the female.
Mustang, by Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Erguven (with a script by Alice Winocur, a felicitous assistance), enjoyed recognition at its release (at festivals and award ceremonies), guaranteeing nice Blu-ray releases (in Europe by Curzon Artificial Eye, in the U.S. by Cohen Media Group), but will it be forgotten as it is overwhelmed by the usual deluge of blockbusters? Whatever fate awaits it, Mustang is a work of distinction.
Five sisters return from their boarding school for summer holiday. Interestingly, the school is portrayed as a place of solace rather than indoctrination; the sisters, especially Lale (Gunes Sensoy), are extraordinarily beautiful, since they express life in all aspects of their being, from their long, flowing hair (the film’s title associates the young women with wild, untamed horses) to their perceptive eyes. It is life doomed to extinction, but the extent of the destruction is by no means telegraphed. When they leave school, they enjoy a sojourn on a beach with some boys. This is followed by a scene with the girls taking apples from an orchard. They are without boys now; this is an Eden without Adam, but it has God the Father in the form of an angry farmer brandishing a shotgun, driving them away.
The return home is the beginning of the end. The sisters are raised by a grandmother and uncle, their parents having died years earlier under circumstances that aren’t explained. What is most significant about their situation is the manifestation of patriarchy in an especially sclerotic, calcified form. The sisters’ overseers are already informed that the young women were romping on the beach, “pleasuring themselves” by riding on the boys’ shoulders (in an innocent kind of tug-of-war). The key issue here is “pleasure” on the part of women outside of marriage (there is always a similar proscription for boys, but one less closely policed), and sexual pleasure as beyond the pale for the woman, whose sexual “purpose” is to procreate. The idea of the stimulation of the female genitals so as to give pleasure is an assault on God, the ultimate patriarch, who gives the woman a specific role (in all “Abrahamic” religions and others) in the use of the body – as property of the male order.
The grandmother (a typical case of the internalization of patriarchy) goes into action, making drab clothing (rightfully called “shit colored”) for the sisters, then instructing them on how to win a suitor – and please a husband – by filling his stomach: the woman as mother figure and domestic slave. The sisters are put to work in the kitchen. The uncle – who becomes an abuser of the young women – goes to work turning the house into a literal prison by putting iron bars on the windows.
The narrative becomes hellish, as the uncle and friends arrange marriages for the sisters, monitor their every attempt at personal joy (like going to a soccer match – it looks like their desire is as much to scream their heads off out of anxiety and anger as to watch the game). It is instructive that Erguven, according to an interview, watched Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) on a loop, the cinema’s stunning examination on the ever-present threat of fascism and oppression/repression. Pasolini necessarily benefits Erguven’s vision, since the form of tyranny in the uncle’s house isn’t accompanied by black uniforms and jackboots, but by the prosaic, at least in terms of the conservative Islamic household (we could substitute Christian or any other belief system). Erguven informs us that much of the film is drawn from her own early life; the personal note makes palpable and immediate what the sisters face, which is the suffocation of unwanted marriage, the repression of their sexual expression, and ultimately death (the sister Ece [Elit Iskan] takes her life after her uncle’s abuse). Lale and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) flee, with the aid of Yasin (Burat Yigit), a friendly (and non-exploitative) young trucker, perhaps a symbol of the potentials of a future generation. The two younger sisters make it to Istanbul, and the arms of their loving – and progressive-minded – teacher.
There are some especially notable moments in this film. The sisters are often photographed at play with each other, the camera overhead, the women entwined, laughing. We could call the scenes of a “lesbian” character if we accept the definition supplied by Robin Wood in his discussion of Tokyo Story (1953) in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. The women find not only joy, both physical and spiritual in each other, but a form of solidarity in the face of the male-imposed misery in front of them.
There is a joint wedding of two older sisters, Sonay (Illayda Akdogan) and Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu). Sonay says she will marry only her “true love,” while Selma is forced into an arranged marriage. At the wedding party, Sonay is happy and dances about while Selma sits glumly. On the morning after the “wedding night,” the family demands to see Selma’s bloody sheet, the proof that she was a virgin for her betrothed (virginity and its “proof” appears earlier in the film; one of the sisters says she has “fucked the whole world” in a gesture of defiance as she is forced to have a doctor inspect her hymen). The moment inspires chills, as the female body as property could not be more explicitly rendered – and she sheds her blood to keep the family confident and intact. But where is Sonay? One gets the sense that her wedding produces the same scene, and that joy over her true love is self-deception. The two women mirror each other in their endurance of ritual; the bogus freedom of one is rendered a delusion in the other.
Where in the current summer crop of blockbusters is there a film with anything like this kind of integrity and intelligence? I recently saw Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). I had great hopes for this director after seeing his Pusher films. His last accomplishment was Drive (2011; but I may be deluded here – his last important film may be Valhalla Rising, 2009), after which he has played to the gallery. The Neon Demon, about the gaudy, depraved world of high-fashion photography and its traps for the female (traps which Refn enjoys portraying), seems to have no cognizance of the photographs of Helmut Newton, nor of the fact that this tale has been noted decades ago.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.