"Caramel": The Sweetness and the Pain By Geir Kamsvåg

in 18th Stockholm Film Festival

by Geir Kamsvåg

You don’t often see films from Lebanon. Caramel (Sukkar banat) is a lovely little film from a country that is better known for political turmoil, religious disputes and war than for film production. Any film that gets made in Lebanon these days should be celebrated, considering the political state of the country and its struggling film industry.

Caramel is as sweet as its name suggests. It is a romantic film centered on the daily lives of six Lebanese women living in Beirut — beautifully directed by Nadine Labaki, who also plays the main character Layale. This is a movie about woman’s inner being; men are in the background and the disorders in the lives of the women are all revealed in a very elegant way. Uncertainty of life, sexuality, marriage, mid-life crisis and aging are all put together in a colorful plot about these pleasantly innocent people. The title refers to a toffee-like product that is used for the painful removal of body hair in the Middle East, but it stands as a perfect metaphor for the themes of the film in that it’s a sugary, delicious substance that can also burn you. Labaki has the good sense to include both Muslim and Christian women, showing both similarities and differences in their respective cultures and their impact on the routine of these women’s everyday lives.

Layale (Nadine Labaki) works in the beauty salon with three other women. Each one has a problem: Layale has a relationship with a married man, Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) is soon to be married, but is no longer a virgin, Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) has lesbian tendencies, and Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is worried about growing old. The seamstress Rose lives next to the beauty salon. Already getting on in age, she devotes her life to taking care of her obstreperous older sister, but suddenly finds her first love.

Making a beauty salon the centre of a story about women has been done many times, from Hollywood classics like George Cukor’s The Women (1939) to Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989), which put Julia Roberts on the map. It’s a natural site where they can discuss their lives and interests without getting disturbed by the other gender. Nadine Labaki has made her own personal story out of the salon — a flavorful film about people coping with life in a city that is torn by civil war every other decade and was recently bombed by Israel — the attacks broke out one week after the shooting of the film was completed. In Caramel, we see Christian and Muslim women living together, working together, truly loving and supporting each other during a period of sectarian conflicts. What they all have together is the longing for love.

Caramel also presents an intriguing portrait of life in modern-day Beirut, with Christians and Muslims living side by side and happily going about their lives — politics are left very firmly in the background.

This is the first feature film by Nadine Labaki, who has a background of videos and TV commercials. Nadine Labaki shows she is both a great director and actress who impresses the audience with her playful script. The film is beautifully shot, and Labaki has assembled an impressive ensemble of women, who, except for herself, are all non-professional actors. Caramel is a great film and definitely marks Nadine Labaki as a talent to watch.