“Caramel”- A Comedy from Beirut

    “Caramel”, now in limited release, is a light comedy about the love lives of 5 women filtered through the activities in a Beirut beauty salon.  A female ensemble comedy set in strife-filled, war-torn Lebanon sounds like an oxymoron, right?  But this is really an entertaining film that’s worth seeking out.  It is the feature directing debut of Nadine Labaki, a veteran director of commercials and music videos.  In addition, she co-wrote the script and plays Layale, the beautiful owner of the salon.   This film has received one of the widest U.S. theatrical releases of an Arab film in years.   Go to the website for specific release dates: http://www.newamericanvision.com/Caramel.html

This film finished shooting weeks before the beginning of the Israel-Lebanon war in July of 2006.  Add that tension into the normal stress of completing a film!  Not that this film is about war, because it isn’t.  It is about the romantic intrigues of 5 women.  Only through glimpses of the crumbled infrastructure do we see the toll war has taken.  But these references become comedic devices, like the salon’s hand- cranked generator that’s fired up every time the electricity goes out.  This is because the director has great affection for her city and has dedicated the film “to my Beirut”.   Here Christian neighborhoods co-exist next to Muslim neighborhoods with their separate religious rituals and traditions.  This religious tolerance is reflected in the women’s friendships; some are Muslim, others are Christian, even Catholic.  One of the most incongruous sights was a priest-led parade of a large Blessed Mother statue winding its way through the streets of  Beirut right into the beauty salon for the shop’s annual blessing.

I found this film fascinating because we don’t often see the everyday lives of Arab women portrayed in film. What struck me were not the differences but the similarities in their lives and the lives of western women.  We think of Arab women as leading restricted lives, and mostly hidden behind yards of fabric.  The women in this film seemed independent, dressed in bright, stylish clothes and had strong, dynamic personalities, at times verging on campy, and somewhat reminiscent of the colorful women in Pedro Almodovar’s films.

The film is episodic, following 5 different story lines.  While the situations aren’t particularly original, setting them in Beirut gives the film its unique flavor.  Layale, the shop owner, is having an affair with a married man.  Because she is an unmarried Arab woman, she lives at home with her parents and shares a bedroom with her younger brother.  There is a lesbian character unable to live openly as a gay woman, who finds sensual pleasure shampooing the magnificent mane of an exquisitely beautiful customer.   One of the women is Muslim and about to be married.  Desperate to cover her past, she has minor surgery to restore the appearance of virginity for her wedding night. This type of surgery is not exclusive to Arab countries.  Not long ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about L.A. women going in for this very same procedure– promoted as a way to add a little spice to that special night.  No matter what culture, women can’t seem to escape the pressure to physically alter their bodies to please their men.

There is also the story of Auntie Rose an older woman working as a tailor while tending to her demented older sister; this sister thwarts Rose’s attempt to have a liaison.  Finally, there is a storyline of an older actress trying to appear younger and stay in the game.   As an actor who’s been on countless commercial auditions, I was laughing and wincing at the character’s clumsy attempts to appear youthful and radiant as she auditioned for a cosmetic commercial.

This film taps into what we all feel in searching for love – bliss, excitement, heartbreak, longing, frustration and jealousy.  Nadine Labaki has extracted fine performances from her cast and, with one exception, they are nonprofessionals.  So, kudos to this fine young director for discovering these “real” women and creating a wonderful ensemble piece that allows each of them to shine.  By the way the title refers to a depilatory method of sugar waxing with caramel.   You could see this as a metaphor for the things women do to look sweet for their men.  But it’s also an apt title for a film that is a bitter-sweet story about the strength of women’s friendships.
Jan Bina, blogger/In the Trenches Productions