The day that I watched Nadine Labaki's charming film "Caramel," about the lives of women who work at a beauty parlor in Beirut, was the ironic moment that the rest of the world was watching Hezbollah troops fighting the government in the city that's been called the Paris of the East.
"Caramel" is a film that doesn't break any new ground; it's what you might call a classic festival film, one that film festivals like to book because it fills out the program, it comes from a rarely-heard location (Lebanon), it has new actors who are lovely to look at and a charming attitude that the audience will enjoy, it's in Arabic and French, and in fact it was selected for showings at Cannes and Toronto, among other festivals, and was Lebanon's entry in this year's Academy Awards for best foreign film. Caramel, by the way, is what the women make and then use in waxing their clients' legs.
It's the intertwined stories of four women at Si Belle, the beauty parlor. Labaki plays the owner, Layale, who is torturing herself with a relationship with a married man that isn't going anywhere; and one of the film's weaknesses is that we know this before Layale does. In fact she has an admirer, a policeman who keeps giving her tickets but finds it hard to say what he really wants. And Layale has an aunt Rose, a seamstress who must care for her senile sister and cannot find a way to enjoy a relationship with a lovely older man who comes in to have his suit altered. Then there is Rima, a would-be lesbian who is unable in this Arabic culture to do more than sensuously wash the hair of a beautiful customer. And Nisrine, a bride-to-be who must find a way to be a virgin again for her husband.
The film is lovely to look at, though more because the women are so pretty than because of the rather amateurish photography and lighting, and not very much happens that we can't anticipate; but still, there is an undeniable warmth and sincerity that lies within every frame of the film. We know that sooner or later almost everything will work itself out, including the upside-down B of the store's Si Belle sign. Perhaps the only real emotion in the film is the truncated romance that aunt Rose almost, but not quite, gives herself to. I would like very much to see Labaki's next film.