I’ve just seen Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang and felt incredibly moved by both the narrative itself as well as the beautiful aesthetics that Erguven employs to help point up the contrasts between freedom and constraint. I therefore must take some issues with Nick Pinkerton’s otherwise informative review in this month’s Sight and Sound.
Nick suggests that “Erguven pictures liberty more vividly than she does captivity” and that she fails to capture a sense of “choking claustrophobia”. I feel that Erguven’s ability to capture the girls’ confinement is not simply reliant on the old clichés of terrified close-ups and cut-aways to prison bars/locks chains etc. Instead, she enables us to absorb the girls’ sensory experience of confinement perfectly through her cinematography and the subtle motifs which suffuse the film. Indeed, Erguven’s camerawork reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s work on Fish Tank (2009) or Red Road (2006) in that it absorbs us into the physical world of her protagonists – we don’t just see the girls’ experiences, but we feel them. My first reaction was to feel the kinetic activity within the frame, the girls’ experiences with the sensual world – water, food, even the touch of fabric against skin – all offer the spectator a phenomenological experience of the girls’ lives and as their confinement becomes more pronounced, so Erguven invites us to feel their frustrations by keeping her camera physically close to her protagonists, helping us to an embodied experience of their restricted existences.
Symbolically, Erguven reinforces confinement in many ways. For instance, the circular movements of the girls’ hands as they roll dough is repeated by Sonay as she cleans her bedroom windows, and which then becomes a gentle wave to her lover as he watches from outside: this subtle transformation of an action which suggests confinement to one which is a yearning for escape says more than the clunky clichés which Nick wants to see. In the scene when the girls’ have to wear the ‘shit-coloured dresses’ designed to hide their burgeoning sexuality there are so many echoes of Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, (and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Scout Finch’s complaint of being held within the ‘pink cotton penitentiary’ of a dress in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Particularly striking is Erguven’s use of a decorated box of chocolates which appears during the formal meetings between families to introduce the would-be spouses to each other. After the death of their sister Ece, this box is placed in front of Nur even as she is still immersed in grief; it is a clear signal that her grandmother believes that it is time for Nur to follow the paths of her sisters. When she takes a chocolate from the box, Nur chokes: it is a response that triggers Lale and Nur’s decision to escape.
Little juxtapositions prevail throughout the film: the girls sunbathe in a little alcove behind bars which their grandmother has installed to keep them contained; in Lale’s reccy of her garden, tree-branches are entwined with barbed wire fencing, a clear metaphor for the oppositions of freedom and confinement which the film continues to foreground. Objects are repeatedly thrown out of the window – from pillows to spoilt food – highlighting the girls’ sense of internment. We don’t need to see close-ups of bars: they remain in the background to the girls’ everyday lives.
In all, then, I’m not quite sure what Nick means when he claims that the film fails to capture “the feeling of mounting cabin fever”; this is not meant to be Panic Room (Indeed, rather than The Virgin Suicides to which the film has been compared, I felt that I was watching a reworking of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Samira Makhmalbaf’s 1998 film The Apple). We feel the girls’ confinement, frustrations, terror, and the final shot of Lale embraced by her teacher which is held for some time before the credits role symbolises the sensory engagement which the film foregrounds.
Appendix – see a shorter version of this in August 2016’s Sight and Sound