In Deniz Gamze Erguven’s feature debut, Mustang (2015), five young sisters in provincial Turkey engage in playful roughhousing with boys from school. While perfectly innocent in their intentions, the meeting of teenage bodies, teetering on the brink sexual maturity, is interpreted by the paranoid adults in their lives as a dangerous display of eroticism. Under the unforgiving gaze of a controlling uncle, the young women are shut away from the world, locked in their home and cut off from the world by barred windows, as older women begin training them for wifehood and arranging matches. Under the enormous pressure of their confinement, the girls escape one by one in ways alternately joyful, tragic, and exhilarating.
The film frequently recalls classic fairy tales, with nods to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in the depiction of young women trapped by an older man and the Brothers Grimm story “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in the girls’ clandestine moments of escape from their tightly secured home. The fairy tale elements of the film extend beyond isolated allusions to specific fables – the style permeates every aspect of the work, from its visual language to its storytelling methods. The fairy tale feel of the piece is established early, with airy, sun-filled photography of the long-haired, long-limbed, nearly identical girls cavorting in the sea like water sprites. The dreamy visuals persist after the girls’ forced confinement begins, with frequent images of wide open, clear, blue skies that offer tantalizing glimpses of freedom, and elemental whites and reds and shadows in the haunting wedding scenes. In a particularly striking scene, one of the girls lies on the examination table in a doctor's office, still wearing her pristine white wedding dress, as the doctor confirms her virginity. The girl's rich gown, flowing hair, and listless expression recall a lifeless Snow White (or even Millais' painting of Ophelia). The fable-like approach is further established in the way the story is told. While the characters have distinct personalities, these are not the delicately nuanced character portraits of a Mike Leigh film. Instead, the personalities in the film function as near-archetypes, a choice that lends the story a feeling of universality and timelessness in much the same way that the simple identities of characters like Jack or Hansel and Gretel do. The basic plot points also have echoes of fairy tales: the early scene of play in the sea has echoes of "The Little Mermaid"; beautiful, young girls on the cusp of womanhood locked away in a high fortress suggest "Rapunzel"; like Cinderella, the girls are orphans who are cared for by a cruel relative. Perhaps most interestingly, the film is narrated by the youngest sister, who often directly described the action happening onscreen, a choice that draws attention to the act of storytelling and the often oral nature of fairy tales and fables.
These fairy tale-inspired choices are not purely aesthetic, but are used specifically to illuminate Erguven’s feminist themes. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim describes the ways in which fairy tales have traditionally served to make sense of the perilous journey from childhood to adulthood and teach children necessary lessons for surviving in the dangerous grown up world. These stories frequently focus on that most culturally fraught of adolescent experiences: the female journey from girl to sexually mature woman. The original stories depicted women’s sexual development in metaphorical ways; though the story of Little Red Riding Hood is frequently understood as a parable of sexual maturation, the story never explicitly addresses anything erotic. Meanwhile, contemporary revisionist works, like Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, have taken that subtext and made it text (there’s no getting around the huge wolf penis in the original production) . The unique thing about Mustang’s use of these tales is that it doesn’t retell familiar stories in a modern way. Rather, it borrows from the atmosphere and tropes of the earlier stories to tell a universal story of burgeoning womanhood and highlight the damaging fear of female sexuality that has existed throughout history and continues today. By drawing on classic traditions of storytelling, Mustang reaches beyond the specific situation of its plot and spins a timeless story of the harrowing journey from innocence to maturity in a world where a female body is a terrifying threat.