America is a land of opportunity, beckoning thousands across the globe to come to these shores in celebration of freedom and liberty.
If you’re a cute white girl from Ireland, at least.
Yes, it’s an ironic time for a dewy-eyed film that romanticizes immigration to America, but that’s exactly what Brooklyn is. Saoirse Ronan has been earning raves, nominations, and critical awards for her portrayal of Eilis, a guileless Irish girl who exits her modest hometown across the sea for the bright lights and big city of… Brooklyn.
Before it was a hipster enclave, Brooklyn was a refuge for a diverse range of immigrants, it turns out (who knew?) — most notably, in this film, Irish and Italians. Eilis acquires a job in a department store under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Mad Men‘s Jessica Pare) and takes up residence in a boarding house for girls under the even more watchful eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She also begins school to learn to be an accountant, just like her sister back home. Eilis’ fellow boarders are gossipy, but she soon develops a sort of friendship with them, as well as her coworkers. But it isn’t until she meets a strapping stranger at a dance that she truly feels at home.
That strapping stranger would be Tony, an Italian boy winningly played by Emory Cohen, who manages to ooze old fashioned charm without ever quite becoming gooey. It’s plain to see how Eilis falls for this man, because as written by Nicholas Hornby, he’s absolutely perfect: good-looking, kind-hearted, emotionally mature, and he has a warm and welcoming family. Okay, so maybe he’s “just” a plumber and is sensitive about his lack of smarts (though he never really does anything dumb), but he’s a catch, and Eilis knows it. Then again, Eilis herself is pretty immaculate — and so, for that matter, is just about everyone in this movie.
That’s what kept me at a distance from Brooklyn, the very definition of a handsome picture, but one that idealizes the immigrant experience and this era (1952). Most of this can probably be pinned on Colm Toibin, the author of the book it’s based on. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to concoct a story that’s almost totally pleasant, about a girl who is torn between two perfectly wonderful paths to take her life down. When tragedy brings her back to Ireland, Eilis meets another absolutely perfect gentleman who is totally taken with her — Jim (Domnhall Gleeson). At this point, Eilis’ life in Ireland is rosier than it was when she had to leave — she has a good job and a fine man handed to her, as well as family obligations. There’s a chance she won’t ever make it back to Tony.
The film makes that choice palpable, and it should resonate with anyone who’s ever left a humble hometown in hopes of greater career opportunities elsewhere. What doesn’t resonate quite so well is just how easily it all comes to Eilis, and how little she does to get any of it. Her home and first job are set up by the kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who also finds a benefactor to pay for her school. Both Tony and Jim relentlessly pursue her with boundless romantic attention. When Eilis returns to Ireland in what she thinks will be a brief stay, she gets handed another job. She also starts dressing like a 1950s movie star, even though she’s only an accountant, with no clues as to how she got the means or fashion sense for the transformation. The moral of this story? Eilis is one lucky immigrant.Brooklyn is a pleasant trip if you don’t mind an uncomplicated (and, frankly, unrealistic) drama that’s pure escapism. The charm of its performers, plus some engaging scene work by Nick Hornby, is enough to ensure that it goes down easy, though it’s surprisingly lightweight for a film that’s getting so much hype during awards season. (Director John Crowley has done more impressive work in the unfortunately underseen Boy A, starring Andrew Garfield.) Further off the radar is Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s drama about five sisters living in a Turkish village under increasingly strict supervision from their elders. Mustang is France’s official entry in the Academy Awards race, so it’s not totally obscure, but it’s the sort of foreign film that is destined to go unseen by mainstream moviegoers, which is a shame. In many ways, Mustang is the anti-Brooklyn: Brooklyn‘s Eilis has boundless opportunities handed to her throughout the film, and doesn’t do much with them, while Mustang‘s spirited young protagonist has no freedom and still manages to assert her independence, through the sheer force of her will.
Mustang will immediately call to mind two movies, if you’ve seen them — Dogtooth, the super-weird tale of Greek siblings growing up completely cut off from the outside world, and The Virgin Suicides, which was also about five sisters who find themselves living in captivity when their family grows fearful of their burgeoning sexuality. Like The Virgin Suicides, Mustang is directed by a woman, which is certainly not essential in crafting a smart, entertaining piece of moviemaking about women, but often helps.
Mustang begins with five young girls frolicking innocently with some schoolboys in the sea. Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, and Sonay have done nothing to be ashamed of, but gossip about what might have occurred is damaging enough. The girls are taken to get their virginity tested, and soon comes a string of suitors to whisk them away one by one, starting with the eldest. Mustang is not merely a foreign rehash of The Virgin Suicides, however, thanks to two key factors. First, it is set in Turkey, far from the more cosmopolitan Istanbul, in a society that is much less liberal than 1970s America, the setting of Virgin Suicides. Second, unlike Virgin Suicides, the story is not told through the lens of a male narrator; in fact, males don’t play a terribly important role in Mustang at all — at least, specific males don’t. Some of the girls have flings and romances, but we hardly know the men at all — because neither do they, really. Often, we see only glimpses of the boys in question, or catch sight of them from a distance. The quintet of teen sisters is being married off to men they’ve spent a mere handful of minutes with one by one, as per the tradition of their culture. So in a sense, we the audience get to know these men about as well as the girls do before they’re expected to perform their “wifely duties” — which, of course, includes the ritual sacrifice of their oh-so-precious virginities, culminating in the incredibly awkward parental “viewing” of the blood-stained bedsheet that confirms they haven’t been ripped off with an “impure” bride.
Mustang is a reminder of the way girls are essentially bought and sold in certain cultures (and the latent remnants of those restrictions that still linger in cultures as “liberated” as America in 2015). The only value young women have is as a virgin bride, thus their families stop at nothing to protect a teenage girl’s purity. It is not impossible to marry for love, but it’s much rarer than marrying as a mutually beneficial “arrangement.” Once these sisters are married off, we don’t see much of them, just as our young protagonist Lale doesn’t. Lale is losing her sisters one by one, much earlier than she probably should — and she alone is willing to fight back against this culture and all its traditions, against every preconceived notion the older generation has about its young women.
Mustang does a fantastic job at distinguishing each of the girls’ disparate personalities without making any of them a mere “type” — Sonay is boy-crazy, Lale is feisty, Nur is a follower, Selma is reserved, Ece is moody and unknowable, but there are layers of depth to each. (Günes Sensoy, Elit Iscan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, and Ilayda Akdogan turn in flawless turns as the sisters, each bringing a very different dynamic to the group.) Similarly, the girls’ family — mainly, their grandmother and uncle, charged with raising them (we never learn what happened with the parents) — are certainly villains in a sense, but also human beings whose motives are clear. Little by little, they start taking the girls’ freedoms away. It isn’t long before the girls aren’t allowed to leave the house, and then before they’re literally trapped in the house. The only escape is in the clutches of a male suitors’ arms. The price is merely the rest of their lives.
It’s easy to imagine a movie like Mustang wallowing in misery, presenting a tragic tale of powerless young girls undone by a patriarchal culture. We’ve seen that before. There are a handful of tragic moments in Mustang, but ultimately this is a hopeful and energetic film, one that speaks to a changing tide rather than an all-consuming status quo. The world is changing. Girls are getting stronger. Generation by generation, in many cultures, women are growing more confident, more educated, better able to stand up to oppression. In this case, the buck stops with Lale, who refuses to be reduced to a commodity, who will not allow her worth to valued around her eligibility as a virgin bride. The film’s climax is a pitch perfect act of revenge — but it’s the kind of simple revenge a child would dream up, not the blood-soaked, Tarantino-style reverie you’d expect from a different sort of movie, and it’s followed by an exhilarating attempt to escape the family’s clutches, and this society itself. The film’s conclusion perfectly and subtly speaks to exactly how important education is to young women in cultures like these (a point that could have been hammered home in much more obvious fashion, and thankfully wasn’t).Mustang is an unpredictable experience — you’re never quite sure how dark it’ll get. The script by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour perfectly captures the sisterhood between the girls and leaves the older sisters a bit of a mystery, as older sisters tend to be to a young girl like Lale. These older girls succumb to their fates as so many before them have, but Lale makes the bold and unlikely choice to fight back. The script avoids almost every cliche, save one late-blooming revelation involving the uncle, which could have been eliminated — particularly involving an adult man (Burak Yigit) who takes a friendly interest in Lale and aids in her rebellion to the extent that he’s able.
All in all, Mustang is one of 2015’s very best films. In a year that’s already perhaps a record-best for women in cinema, it’s the film that most perfectly encapsulates the feminist spirit of the movies released in the last twelve months. (But more on this in my forthcoming Top Ten.) Nothing against Brooklyn, which has plenty of well-written female characters, but Lale’s journey to Istanbul is infinitely more involving than Eilis’ trip to and from Brooklyn, because Lale really earns her freedom. She really works for it, challenging every convention and boundary along the way. With any luck, Mustang will at least make it into the Best Foreign Film race at this year’s Oscars. After seeing it, I believe that Lale could make it just about anywhere.*