A horde of filmgoers rushed to Good News Cinema last Wednesday to catch Lebanese actor/director Nadine Labaki’s much heralded directorial debut “Caramel. Defying the pervading rule of Arabic movies, the film didn’t disappoint after all, drawing loud laughs and warm applause throughout its 95-minute duration.
The film is set in a Beirut beauty salon owned by Layale, a young woman having an affair with a married man.
Joining her in managing the salon are Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), a Muslim from a conservative background who decided to have hymen-reconstruction surgery a few weeks before getting married; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a closet lesbian who starts to develop an infatuation for her stunning long-haired client; and Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a middle-aged woman unable to cope getting old and her fading beauty.
Labaki’s film is essentially a story about female-bonding in modern Beirut. It’s not a romantic chick flick à la “Waiting to Exhale for example. Its bittersweet tone and encompassing vision are closer to Nicole Holofcener’s films (“Walking and Talking, “Lovely and Amazing ).
Like Holofcener’s works, the film is a celebration of this group of women, with all their flaws, misgivings, and men who remain simple-minded, alien creatures.
Like Pedro Almodóvar’s last tour-de-force “Volver, men act as a catalyst to explore the lives of these women. The core of their predicament lies in their inability to confront their reality (Jamale), accept themselves (Rima), stand-up to their own beliefs (Nisrine) or have the strength to break away from an ill-fated relationship (Labaki).
The most interesting, heartrending character in the film is Rose (Sihame Haddad), an elderly lady who falls for an old, venerable gentleman. Shackled by her sense of responsibility for her older, mentally unstable sister, Rose decides to sacrifice possibly her last chance for true happiness.
On the downside, the film is doesn’t have much of a plot, despite the fact that the lives of these characters are intertwined and Labaki’s lens captures the small, intimate moments these women share.
Yet the film lacks depth and, apart from Rose, none of the characters are fully developed. Rima’s character, for example, is half-baked; her motivations and external conflicts are hardly touched. Jamale, the darkest of these characters, is never allowed to turn dark enough.
Nevertheless, it’s charming, funny and heartwarming. It works within the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre and succeeds in churning out a stellar example.
Labaki has an eye for presenting ordinary Beirut life through a realistic, perceptive prism. And the city isn’t a mere background but a strong character in the film.
Overall, “Caramel is a lighthearted picture by a director with better skills behind the camera than in front of it. The story is hardly new, but the performances, beautiful cinematography and Khaled Mouzannar’s tender, warm score renders this film Labaki’s best work to date.