This might be the hardest film I’ve found to review so far. I was 16 when it was released and I instantly fell in love with it. It spoke to me of my own stiflingly female, melancholic, teenage experience. It’s beautiful, it’s nostalgic, it’s dark, it’s all my favorite things. But having now watched Deniz Gamze Ergvens ‘Mustang’, I’m wondering whether I ever really saw it for what it was. And that might not be such a bad thing.
Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenes novel, the story is set in an affluent Michigan suburb in the mid 70s. The narrators are four sensitive, inquisitive boys growing up in the neighborhood. They become fascinated with the mysterious Lisbon sisters and the regime of religious austerity that governs their lives. Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia Lisbon are kept on a short leash by their mother who dictates what they can wear, who they can socialize with and what media they can consume. The boys spend much of their time inventing ways to interact with the girls without arousing Mrs Lisbons suspicions and as the household regime becomes ever more extreme the girls finally seem to respond to their attempts at connection. However, things don’t quite turn out the way the boys were hoping they would.
The cinematography and art direction are gorgeous. Greens, sepias, blues and smoky tones dominate the aesthetic and create the films darkly nostalgic atmosphere. Most of the soundtrack is by Air and feels dreamy but with a sinister undertow (other great musical moments include Hearts ‘Magic Man’ heightening the teenage lust factor). It’s basically a very well crafted film where all aspects, and some brilliant acting, come together and support each other to bring the story into sharp focus.
My newly discovered issue with it is to do with the way the story is framed. I always regarded the novel as troublingly voyeuristic but I thought that Coppolla had managed to bypass that in the film by letting us into the girls world more than Eugenes ever did. There are dirty stockings draped over the bannisters. The bathroom is crowded with bottles of perfume, lotions, makeup and boxes of tampax. There is female paraphernalia scattered everywhere. We witness moments of tenderness between sisters that draw us into their world. But of course, at its heart, it’s an utterly voyeuristic story because it’s never told from the girls perspective. The male gaze is completely dominant and all those touches of intimacy, seen through the boys eyes, just add to the girls mystery. Their inaccessibility from across the gaping, unknowable chasm that is womanhood is what makes them so desirable. Just like the boys, we are onlookers who can never know the girls in any meaningful way or truly understand their motivations. And I only really realized that after watching Mustang and getting to know each sister and her individual personality so well.
As a teenager watching it, I didn’t feel as though I needed much information about the girls in order to connect with them. In fact the boys just seemed to be cute but essentially unimportant characters who didn’t drive the story. I wonder if that is the same for any woman watching this film. Could any woman understand the girls because Coppolla teases out deadpan stares and the limp, lifeless body language of a teenage girl with the weight of her own gender dragging her down? Is shared experience enough to enable women to understand the Lisbon sisters on a very fundamental level which needs no direct communication? In which case, how do men relate to the sisters? Can they understand them in the way I did at 16? And if not, does that mean the film is unsuccessful? I worry it further vindicates the notion that women are from Venus.
This worry is compounded by the gender observations the boys make and how achingly saccharine they are. Their discoveries go as follows:
‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl. The way it made your mind active and dreamy and how you ended up knowing what colours went together. We knew that the girls were really women in disguise. That they understood love, and even death and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.’
I’m going to stick my neck out and say, I can’t imagine a woman writing that. I want to see the film where they steal dads car, spend a long road trip hashing out why it’s shit being a girls AND boys and then set up a utopian, genderless commune in the desert.
Lux is the most fetishized of the sisters. With all the closeups of her lips, her eyes, her neck, she becomes such a powerful totem of desire for the boys (and us). She is the playful, confident, sexually daring sister. It’s easy to see her as just a bored, horny 14 year old but I think she embodies a dichotomy that all women struggle with. She has been taught to believe her worth lies in her beauty, chastity and ability to please men (the half of the population she’s been led to believe are more important than her). She believes it’s the only currency she has to trade with. So, of course, she tests it to see where it gets her. But when Lux finally cashes it in and looses her virginity, an entire system of belief comes crashing down around her. She is carelessly discarded and suddenly realizes her currency has plummeted, she is worth nothing. The only option left to her is a sexually risky path to self-destruction. It’s something that most women struggle with, especially when all images of women emphasize the fact that we are valued for our sexual appeal and that if you withhold it you’re frigid and if you give it up you’re a whore. But I’m not sure whether a man would understand her motivations for suddenly becoming so promiscuous. The boys in the film don’t.
It’s a great film for atmosphere but from a feminist standpoint it’s maybe a little problematic. It does pass the bechdel test but I feel this is one case where the test isn’t all that effective. Perhaps I’m over thinking it or I’m just becoming too critical in my old age but I now find myself disappointed that Coppolla chose to tell a story where we learn nothing new from seeing women through mens eyes.