If Caramel were a Hollywood big-studio chick flick, instead of a Lebanese chick flick set in Beirut, it would come with a PG‑13 rating rather than a PG, peppered with brassy sex-related dialogue and class/race/gender-baiting humor.
The story could still be centered on a beauty salon as the hub of activity in the lives of a mostly female ensemble cast, although plot needs would probably require some creaky, contrived crisis, such as a threat to the salon’s future. One of the characters might still learn a hard lesson about getting involved with the wrong man, but “the wrong man” would be a generic creep rather than, say, a married man.
Instead of Muslims and Christians, the social mix would be largely black and white — and characters would discuss this constantly, with little epiphanies of racial enlightenment along the way (hopefully for members of both groups, if the filmmakers could manage it). There would also be a more or less binary division of good characters and bad characters, with slimy men and snobby women in the latter group.
No one would smoke, religion would be invisible, and every plotline would be neatly tied up by the film’s end.
All of this wouldn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, for example, if it starred Queen Latifah and was called Beauty Shop. But if there’s a reason to see Lebanese actress–director Nadine Labaki’s Caramel, and there is, the film’s Middle-eastern cultural milieu, providing more than just exotic flavor, is a substantial part of that reason.
As the name implies, Caramel is a gooey, insubstantial confection, often sweet, occasionally cloying, sometimes sticky — in many respects about on a par with the likes of Beauty Shop. The humor is broad, characters stereotypical, the situations formulaic. Yet there’s no good–bad character divide, no requisite A-story conflict, and few tidy resolutions. Milder in presentation than Beauty Shop, Caramel is more mature in content, touching on dicey subjects from adultery to same-sex attraction without the adolescent brashness of the home-grown product.
The beauty salon in Caramel is run by Layale (Labaki), who is having an affair with a married man and struggles with the shamefaced jealousy and curious envy of the Other Woman. Even more than last year’s Waitress, Caramel confronts the potential homewrecker with the domestic side of the equation.
Meanwhile, Layale fends off the attentions of a reserved but handsome traffic cop who routinely calls her short on her frequent traffic and parking violations, giving her tickets he knows she won’t pay, just to spend a minute with her. This subplot provides one of the film’s most delicate scenes as the officer, wistfully watching from afar as Layale steals a few minutes on the phone with her lover, imagines himself on the other end of the line, and offers self-deprecating responses to what he supposes she might be saying.
Stylist Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is engaged to a young man who’s liberal enough to fondle his fiancée’s knee under the table during a family dinner — much to the inquisitive astonishment of the young boy hiding under the table — and to foolishly risk trouble with Beirut’s morality police by sitting with her in a parked car at night outside her house. Yet is he open-minded enough to be able to deal with the revelation that Nisrine isn’t a virgin? To what lengths would Nisrine go to avoid such a crisis?
Frequent client Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is an unwillingly aging never-was actress still trying out for bit parts in TV spots, doing her best to hide her years with coiffure and sartorial choices, even bits of strategically hidden Scotch tape in lieu of an eye job. Jamale tryouts are uncomfortably embarrassing, but ostensibly even more embarrassing is the preempting of a scheduled tryout by a female hygiene predicament — though a later revelation puts her situation in a more pathetic light.
Here and elsewhere, Caramel touches on the intractable grip of the cult of beauty on female self-worth: the endless pains to which women go to look their best; the deep pride and satisfaction that even a withered old woman may take in making herself up for the first time in years; the delight in the unforeseen charm of a completely new look. (The film’s title refers to a sugar confection treatment for hair removal, a jarringly methodical process that quickly dispels the aura of sumptuous decadence promised by the appetizing opening montage.)
At a shop across the street, elderly seamstress Rose (Sihame Haddad) caring for a sister with dementia (Aziza Semaan) may have a twilight opportunity for love with a courtly client. That leaves Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a pixie-tressed shampoo girl whose same-sex infatuation with a long-haired beauty (Fatmeh Safa) who takes to coming in to have her hair washed is one of Caramel’s stickier ingredients. In Beauty Shop, homosexual traits are roundly mocked, which some may feel more comfortable with than Caramel’s tolerant approach. Others may feel that stigmatizing mockery has more to do with disrespecting persons than with traditional Judeo-Christian teaching, which affirms both the disordered and sinful character of homosexual acts and also the personal dignity of individuals who experience same-sex attraction and/or engage in homosexual acts.
With the exception of Nisrine, who is Muslim, nearly all the women appear to be Maronite Catholic — though only elderly Rose and Lili, who pray a somewhat unruly rosary in bed at night, show much sign of practicing their faith. Icons of the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child adorn the wall in Rose’s shop, and crosses, crucifixes, and rosaries hang from necklaces, walls and rearview mirrors. Layale finds a holy card of a saint (I think it was Thérèse of Lisieux) in her lover’s wallet. In one scene a religious procession with a statue of the Virgin Mary makes its way down the street, even taking a detour into the salon, and the Christian women cross themselves and join in the hymn. But religion isn’t shown having a role in informing the characters’ decisions or their thoughts about them.
At the same time, Caramel depicts Middle-eastern Christians and Muslims living and working side by side with no trace of religious conflict or tension. The religious mix is a fact about the characters and their society, not a plot point or a topic for provocative or outrageous banter. Labaki dedicated the film to “my Beirut,” and it’s heartening to see “her” city as she does, as a place where people live and work and face more or less the same sorts of problems as they do in American studio comedies.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.