The Reeler


January 31, 2008


Labaki's look at life in Beirut is a heartfelt gift to a city that couldn't deserve it more

Nadine Labaki finished shooting her first feature film, Caramel, nine days before the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanese war in the summer of 2006. Set in Beirut, the title refers to the heated sugar and lemon juice used instead of hot wax in the Si Belle salon, a hub for the five women (including Labaki, who plays the owner, Layale) whose relationships to men, themselves and each other provide the film with its intimate, huge-hearted look at life in a city notorious for conflict and contradiction. From the regular power outages to the intrusive military checkpoints and variously deep-stitched religious divides, Labaki deftly and often humorously infuses her story of beauty, friendship, longing and constraint with that so painfully epitomized in the plight of her native Lebanon.

Beauty and beautification rituals are Labaki's entry point into an exploration of how her characters feel about themselves, and how those feelings either help or hinder the connections they make to others. Layale, throw-away gorgeous but not quite of a piece with the more aggressively glamorous, upscale women of Beirut, coddles her clients and cajoles her friends but will ditch just about everything when her married lover comes a-honking. She's also somewhat oblivious to the obviously smitten police officer who has made regularly ticketing her car an act of flirtation. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) wears short hair and jeans, and a series of encounters with a beautiful client who really likes having her hair washed hint at Rima's repressed girl-love. Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) is about to marry a Muslim, and undergoes a procedure supposed to help convince him that he married a virgin. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is an aging actress -- I think I need say no more -- and Rose is an older unmarried woman hamstrung, it seems, by her daffy older sister, who ruins what looks to be her last chance at love.

Reading that over, it would seem that Labaki (who co-wrote the script) has come up with a few generic female types and a generic female setting, and yet if the women of Caramel are clichés, nobody told them. None of the actresses (besides Labaki) are professionals, which makes the ease and life with which they inhabit their characters all the more remarkable. Labaki, also a renowned video director in the Arab world, certainly has an eye for detail, filling her frames with shape, texture and a sensual golden light that bathes the deeply layered space of the salon in a sort of safety, a succor.

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It is a vulnerable thing to submit at the salon, to be assessed and assuaged -- in some sense invaded and re-done -- and Labaki uses that moment of surrender and trust as an echo of the vulnerability of Beirut itself, built and re-built countless times in the last century alone. Beirut is the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East, and while that may seem curious in a city full of poverty, hardship, an evaporated middle class and (much) larger political, secular and social issues on its hands, in a way the heightened attention to appearances and self-preservation makes perfect sense: the sanest impulse may be to fix what you can.

Funded mainly by French backers and coming out of Lebanon at a time when it would seem like gritty, dire documentaries and depressing, drum-of-war features would carry the day, a beauty shop flick is an unexpected pleasure. And while Caramel is certainly a film about relationships and romance, it is almost entirely devoid of men. The women speak constantly and excitedly of marriage, but in a curiously detached way, as if tacitly acknowledging it as one more milestone for them to share, and not the beginning of a new life with someone else. Labaki handles with surprising subtlety and charm the idea that -- to a larger extent than perhaps most men realize -- women live out their romantic relationships through their girlfriends, for better and for worse.

The women of Beirut -- by tradition and perhaps also by necessity as warmly co-dependent and familial a society as somewhere like New York can be brittle and withdrawn -- are no different, and that is only one of Caramel's gentle surprises. Although Labaki can get a little cutesy with the cross-cutting (at one point juxtaposing seamstress Rose at her sewing machine with Nisrine on the operating table, prepped for the "Stambouli" stitches that will resurrect her hymen), on the whole the editing is especially expert for a first-time director. The delightful score (written by Labaki's husband, Khaled Mouzannar) has a light touch in perfect keeping with the narrative's sweet-and-sour balance. Labaki dedicates Caramel "To my Beirut"; a sweet, heartfelt gift to a city that couldn't deserve it more.

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