The gooey confection that gives the Lebanese chick flick Caramel its name is more than a sugary treat. The film takes place at a beauty shop in Beirut, where the proprietors use caramel as leg wax for removing unwanted body hairs.
The title Caramel evokes pleasing your sweet tooth while torturing other parts of your body, and perfectly captures the film's tone of bittersweet humor.
In keeping with Steel Magnolias and Beauty Shop, Caramel's beauty parlor provides the stage for minidramas involving several beauticians and their regulars. Writer/director Nadine Labaki plays Layale, who has an unsatisfying affair with a married man while ignoring the overtures of a neighborhood police officer (Adel Karam). A neurotic actress (Gisèle Aouad) fights the aging process while a warm-hearted seamstress (Sihame Haddad) discovers romance late in life, even though her senile sister makes dating nearly impossible. However predictable, Caramel makes a virtue of its loose structure and unresolved plot threads, giving the film the texture of real life instead of a conventional romantic comedy.
Our heroines discover the societal constraints of an Arab society (even though Beirut proves far more liberal than Persepolis' Tehran). In a humiliating series of events, Layale tries to rent a hotel room so she and her lover can have a private moment indoors, only to discover the better places require that a woman show proof of marriage before she can rent a room for two. Layale ends up taking a room at a flea bag that's scarcely better than a brothel. Similarly, Caramel never shows couples getting it on, but Labaki and her cast unmistakably convey the chemistry of mutual attraction, particularly in some sapphic flirtation over shampoo.
Most of the actors are nonprofessionals who provide naturalistic, unfussy performances. The stars of Caramel turn out to be the cozy, bustling neighborhoods of Beirut. Like the films of Pedro Almodóvar, Caramel's camera gravitates to expressive female faces and warm, richly colored cinematography. Food writer Anthony Bourdain, among others, has evocatively celebrated Beirut as a cosmopolitan "Paris of the Orient," despite its history of violence. Caramel crafts a similar love letter to the city's vibrant culture and especially its strong women, who seem capable of finding the beauty in any ugly situation.
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