CaramelDirected by Nadine LabakiStarring Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel and Gisèle AouadRated PG7
Goes well with: Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Offside
In the West, caramel is typically found in between the peanuts and nougat of a Snickers bar, sitting forlornly next to the hot fudge at the local Baskin Robbins or on a stick, surrounding an apple whose sole responsibility is to provide the sour to the sweetness of its partner. But in Beirut, women have another use for the substance to which we're introduced in Nadine Labaki's new film, named for the sticky-sweet stuff. Yes, in the beauty salon that is central to the film, caramel, made in-house, is used for waxing hair off of the legs and, one would expect, other parts of the clientele.
There are five women whose lives revolve around the Beirut salon, each seeking love and happiness in her own way. Labaki is Layale, a gorgeous young woman dangerously dating a married man, eternally hoping that he might one day leave his wife, and always jumping when her mobile rings or a car horn honks to meet him for an illicit tryst that will eventually just crush her spirit a little more. There's Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), engaged to be married but terrified that her fiancé will discover she's not a virgin. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is a divorced actress whose best working years are behind her and who desperately longs for the attention and respect that are no longer hers. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is a girl who likes girls, crushing hard on a gorgeous customer whose hair she washes on an almost daily basis and who seems like she might be willing to switch teams. And there's Rose (Sihame Haddad), the lonely tailor who's interested in one of her customers but is unable to shake the responsibilities of caring for her elderly companion, Lili, who is well on her way to senility.
Yes, it's a chick flick, though Caramel isn't as cloying or manipulative as most of the female-bonding pictures that come out of Hollywood. The devotion each of these women has to one another is actually charming, even if she isn't getting what she wants. The acting is solid, there's some decent laughs and the emotional moments feel sincere.
When Layale finally meets the woman she believes is her nemesis, the tension is palpable and the heartache is affecting.
The human drama in Caramel feels a little slight, but that slightness is actually what makes it an intriguing film. Yes, there are cultural differences to be observed: Layale is required to provide proof of marriage in order to get a hotel room to share with her lover, and it's a nosy soldier patrolling the streets who ends up arresting Nisrine's fiancé for being argumentative and rude.
But, perhaps surprisingly to Westerners, this film is really just a slice of life. There's no violence, other than the occasional crying jag, and what the women want is ultimately not very different from what women in this country want. They want love, pleasure and respect from and happiness for their kids. They want decent cake. There are no assassinations. There are no riots or terrorists. It isn't about that—it's simply about trying to be happy in the world you live in. Caramel is important because it belies the vast gulf we're told separates our cultures. And sure, the women of Caramel might use the titular treat as a beauty product, but who are we to judge? American movie stars use leeches to detox. In that light, a sweet treat on the legs sounds pretty good.