Caramel (2008)

Caramel is a sticky concoction made of sugar, water and lemon juice used as a depilatory in Beirut. It’s also the title of this Lebanese romantic-comedy set in Beirut written, directed and starring (in her directorial debut) the beautiful Nadine Labaki (who bears a resemblance to Italian actress Monica Bellucci).

The film follows the lives of five Lebanese women. Layale (Nadine Labaki) owns and works at a beauty salon and is stuck in a dead end affair with a married man. All the while oblivious to the handsome local cop (Adel Karam) who pines for her. The closest he seems to ever get to express his infatuation for her is by writing her  one parking citation after another.  There’s also Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a muslim co-worker at the salon who is about to be married but is terrified that her fiancé and his conservative family will discover that she’s not a virgin. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is the tomboyish co-worker who develops a crush on a client; a mysterious beauty (Fatmeh Safa) who never allows her hair to be cut but only washed by Rima. It seems to be poor Rima’s only outlet for her repressed sexual longings and it’s more than obvious that the client is also a repressed lesbian. I have to admit those scenes with Rima shampooing and massaging the other woman’s head are indeed sensual. Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is an aging actress and divorcee who could easily be cast in an Almodovar film. Jamale’s attempts at a youthful appearance (especially at casting calls) are both hilarious and sad. And finally, there’s Rose (Sihame Haddad) an old tailoress with a shop next door to the salon. She’s never been married or been in love because she has spent her whole adult life caring for her mentally incapacitated sister Lili (Aziza Semaan). Perhaps things are about to change with the appearance of an older gentleman who takes an interest in Rose.

The movie has many comic moments but also very touching poignant scenes where the audience observes these women as they try to navigate within a restrictive society that often limits their options at happiness. While I enjoyed and appreciated this window into non-Western cinema, I, like most Western women found myself grateful and relieved to live where I do.

And yet the film is a delight to watch. All of these Lebanese women (regardless whether they’re Christian or Muslim) share a solidarity and sisterhood with one another as they deal with universal and local issues of forbidden love, repressed sexuality, the ageing process  in a youth-centered society, traditions of duty vs. personal happiness.

Caramel trailer

I should point out that none of the cast are professional actresses and yet Gisele Aouad as Jamale steals every scene she’s in. The elderly sisters Rose and Lili are an absolute treasure. I strongly recommend this bittersweet Caramel. I loved it!



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