Women who bemoan the loss of their voices in contemporary cinema need only to turn, ironically, to the East, especially to Iran—and now to Lebanon. Nadine Labaki’s debut film, Caramel, about the women who congregate in a Beirut beauty salon, is not the first feminine view of Beirut or of the Lebanese, but it is the first narrative feature since Maroun Baghdadi’s Beirut O Beirut (1975) to transform that city’s image. Caramel never alludes to war.
Labaki, who is in her early 30s, was born one year before the advent of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, yet she seems content to put that experience behind her. In contrast, her Lebanese contemporaries remain preoccupied with the country’s sanguinary history. Randa Chahl Sabag’s The Kite (2003), for instance, tells the story of star-crossed lovers at the Lebanon/Israeli border, and Danielle Arbid’s In the Battlefields (2004) looks back to the experiences of a girl contemplating her escape from Beirut on the verge of the Lebanon/Israeli war. Caramel, named for the sticky substance used to remove unwanted hair—here it would be wax—is set in a sensual, fiercely feminine space where painful transformations, promptly treated with shampoo and pedicure anodynes, are shared and embraced.
Labaki’s characters span four generations of Lebanese women: There’s Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the salon’s young shampoo girl, and her ideal woman, Siham (Fatme Safa); Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), also an employee, who is about 30 and engaged to be married; Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a customer coping, mostly unsuccessfully, with menopause; and Rose (Siham Haddad), a sixty-something seamstress who lives with her dotty, older sister Lili (Aziza Semaan). Layla, played by Labaki, is unmarried and having an affair with a married man. None of the actors is a professional; in fact, Haddad is a housewife and Moukarzel is a manager at an electrical appliance company. They’re all wonderful—perfectly cast and skillfully directed.
Framed by the women’s relationships, the screenplay’s drama emerges from their private terrors. Layla is ashamed of her affair, and afraid that her lover will never leave his wife. Jamale, abandoned by her husband for a younger woman, fears the loss of her looks and goes to extremes to hide the fact that she’s menopausal. Nisrine isn’t a virgin, and she thinks telling her Muslim fiancé might end their engagement. Rima, just discovering her attraction to women, contemplates the thrill of a first, albeit illicit, love. Rose, too, is smitten, by the overtures of a male customer, but she is conflicted: Her overriding responsibility is to her delusional sister.
Caramel is a Lebanese version of Steel Magnolias—a delightful valentine to women of a particular time and place. And, like Robert Harling’s work, it never trivializes feminine anxieties. At first glance, Caramel is a chick flick, plain and simple. Labaki is gorgeous and young, and there is enough romanticism in the plot to satisfy our Cinderella side. On the other hand, Nisrine is about to undergo an operation that will fool her fiancé into thinking he’s her first lover, and Jamale, a would-be actress, keeps pigeon blood in her purse so that she can stain the clothes she wears to auditions.
Labaki’s directorial style continually underplays the passion she’s packed into the screenplay, so that Caramel never feels formulaic. For instance, when Nisrine’s mother explains married life to her on the eve of her wedding, Labaki keeps the camera in medium shot. It’s the choice of a filmmaker who trusts her actors, and who understands that the standard editing—cuts to close-ups of Nisrine and her mother—would distract the viewer from the scene’s inherent universality. Labaki’s production design emphasizes the duality of feminine spaces, of women’s bedrooms and the beauty salon, which offer confinement and freedom—and the possibility of metamorphosis. When a male admirer of Layla’s enters the salon, he must raise his voice to be heard. Once inside, he is welcomed as a guest: Another customer relinquishes her chair for him. In that chair, however, he is transformed by the image the women have of him.
Labaki’s confidence is what makes Caramel such an unusual debut film. Whether she’s directing a scene right out of screwball comedy—where she cuts between two telephone conversations, one real and one imagined—or a sequence that does not work as well, where Nisrine, Layla and Jamale are in a cab, Labaki allows events to unfold in what feels like real time. In the cab, the conversation is awkward and the scene is lengthy, but the writer-director plays it out nevertheless, convincing us of its authenticity. During the romantic telephone sequence, the camera spends a lot of time on Labaki’s pretty face, and if at first the scene appears showy, in the end it has a striking immediacy.
Caramel is an excellent, unostentatious film, reminiscent of Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose: It is a feminine embrace and a Magnificat to all matriarchs.