2007, PG, 96 min. Directed by Nadine Labaki. Starring Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad, Adel Karam, Siham Haddad, Aziza Semaan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 22, 2008
The idea of using the setting of a beauty parlor or barbershop as a microcosmic array of human life has a solid tradition within the history of film. In Caramel, the familiar narrative hook finds a home in Beirut, Lebanon, and offers a revealing look at the conflicts experienced by women there in finding a comfortable balance between cultural traditions and modern realities. The first-time feature director, co-writer, and star of Caramel, Labaki, can be forgiven the commonness of her dramatic setting because of the gracefulness of her storytelling and the strength of her vision. With the help of nonprofessional actors, Labaki has carved out a delectable slice of life whose flavors are rarely available on these Western shores. The film is also revelatory to our eyes because it depicts a Beirut that is not war-torn by religious strife and dominated by artillery-pocked buildings and such. In ways, the film is a Lebanese-style Steel Magnolias, in which five women (three work in the shop, one is a constant customer, and another is the seamstress next door) help and support one another through their various yet typical female troubles. Layale (Labaki), who owns the shop, is a 30-ish Christian woman who still lives with her parents (as is the custom) but is dating a married man (as is not the custom). Hairdresser Nisrine (Al Masri) is a Muslim about to be married, although she turns to surgery to disguise her previously lost virginity from her new husband. Rima (Moukarzel) awakens to the sensuous feelings she has for the black-haired beauty whose tresses she shampoos, while Jamale (Aouad) is an aging beauty junkie who is confident she'll find happiness with each new procedure and hairdo. Rose (Haddad), the older seamstress next door, has forsaken her own happiness and chance for love by devoting herself to the care of her not-quite-sane sister (Semaan). They represent a cross section of ages, religions, and attitudes, but the common attribute of womanhood binds them together. The film's lovely opening-credits sequence is a good example of the story's double-edged message: The camera glides across the lugubrious caramel, a sugary paste used for body wax, sensuously wrapping itself in the doughy, taffylike ooze whose ultimate function is to painfully rip undesirable hairs from the body. Happiness and satisfaction are indeed possible; they just may require a bit of pain, deception, and camouflage to achieve.