Every now and again one finds a film of real beauty in an unexpected place. Shot on a modest budget, with a simple story and no famous talents involved, Caramel might have been just another small-time independent cinema release. I’m pleased to say then, that it has succeeded in winning mainstream distribution – big audiences are going to see it, and they’re loving it.
The story of five women working in and around a rather ramshackle Beirut beauty salon may not, at first glance, seem especially intriguing, but Caramel is something special. It hardly mentions the battle lines and war zones of the Middle East. Highly intelligent without being showy, it’s poetically told, painting a complex cultural portrait by way of intriguing personal stories.
There’s Layale, caught up in an affair with a married man and obsessed with his unwitting wife, wanting to know what it is that always draws him back home. And Nisrine, due to be married, but nervous about the potential consequences of her past indiscretions in an unforgiving society. Rima, whose socially dangerous lesbian romance with a customer is portrayed entirely in metaphor – here are some of the most sensuous images of hairdressing you’ll ever see. Jamale, who is struggling to make a career as an actress and to convince everyone (including herself) that she’s still young. And Rose, an ageing seamstress whose devotion to others has let life pass her by.
The supporting characters are also charmingly drawn. There’s Rose’s senile charge, who wanders the streets stealing parking tickets which she believes to be letters from her lost love; and the traffic cop who still painstakingly issues them, who is falling in love with Layale. “She parks in forbidden places” he notes, observing it as a gesture of affection.
The original title of this film translates literally as ‘burnt sugar’, which will give you a better idea of the bittersweet nature of the story. It’s not about a sweet thing eaten for pleasure either – it’s about the stuff used in sugaring, a means of body hair removal equivalent to waxing. It’s all about undergoing pain for the sake of beauty. In the hands of a vengeful beautician, it can be more painful still.
These stories are told in a lingering, sensual way, the imagery always full of light and rich colour. They interweave beautifully and are masterfully told. The director, Nadine Labaki co-wrote the screenplay and plays the part of Layale. It’s the sort of film in which one can lose all sense of time and of the outside world. Spellbinding stuff.
Nadine Labaki | France/Lebanon | 2007 | 95 minutes | PG