In Beirut, five women who work or frequent a beauty salon, a colourful and sensual microcosm of the city where several generations come into contact, talk and confide in each other. Beautiful Layale (Nadine Labaki) is oblivious to the gaze of a local admirer and instead fixates on a married man. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) will soon be married but is afraid her fiancé will discover he isn't her first lover. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) has designs on one of her stunning customers. Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is an aspiring actress and is refusing to grow old, while aging seamstress Rose (Siham Haddad) is overwhelmed when she attracts the attentions of a gentleman customer.
Review by Louise Keller:
This vibrant and intricate look at the lives of five women in Beirut is tantalisingly sweet as the title suggests. Caramel refers not only to the edible nature of the delicious golden concoction made from sugar and water, but also to its properties as a beauty tool, used for hair removal. Pleasure and pain used as a counterpoint for each other. First time writer and director Nadine Labaki spins a sticky web from the characters that live and work around a beauty salon. Between hairstyles and pedicures, we learn about their relationships, their dreams and their dilemmas. Labaki herself sparkles in the central and best developed role of Layale, who runs the salon and whose quandary lies in her obsession with a married man. There are themes within the themes and the various stories intersect with compelling fluidity as we become involved in these women's lives.
There's an upbeat sense of camaraderie in this cocoon sheltered from the outside world where armed soldiers are keeping a watchful eye. There are frequent power surges when lights and hairdryers stutter until life returns to normal. From the outside, we can't help but notice that the 'B' of the illuminated signage outside the Si Belle beauty salon has toppled over backwards as if to make light of the imperfections of the world. Layale's world revolves around two sounds: the honking of her married lover's car horn and the ring of her mobile phone, alerting her to a new rendez-vous. We notice the attractive policeman (Adel Karam) who watches her from across the road, before she does. The other girls have different problems. We warm to Nisrine, (Yasmine Elmasri) who comes from a close-knit Muslim family but whose secret is dampening her upcoming marriage plans. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) starts to acknowledge her lesbian tendency as she is attracted by a girl with beautiful hair. Perhaps the least successful sympathetic story belongs to Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), the small-time actress obsessed by ageing. And anchoring the substance, Sihame Haddad is wonderful as Rose, the motherly tailor who selflessly puts her ailing, demented sister Lili (Aziza Semaan) before her own happiness.
As the film unfolds, we feel as though are become a part of the women's lives. When Layale longs to meet her married lover's wife, little does she realise her wish may come true. And for Rose, we ache for the unspoken attraction with the client who wears his trousers far too short. Labaki evokes a great sense of place as the stories evolve. This is a delicately delicious film, but never too sweet to bypass reality.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Screened at Cannes 2007 in the Directors Fortnight (and later at the giant Toronto festival), Caramel is a debut feature from a young Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, who got lucky when she met experienced, well connected and approachable French producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Toussaint encouraged her and eventually teased the screenplay out of her, also convincing Labaki to direct. The result is a sweet, but certainly not cloying, film about relationships in modern Beirut - the city to which Labaki dedicates her film. That's an important point to understand because Lebaki's characters are all soaked in the Beirut social culture, and make sense as people very much of their time and place.
This informs the story in which each character finds themselves, from pretty Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), who is anxious to replace her virginity before her marriage, to Labaki's central character, Layale, who is seeing a married man. But there are less obvious stories, too, such as that of the wilting spinster Rose (Siham Haddad), a quiet and unassuming seamstress who ekes out a living doing repairs and alterations, looking after her erratic, semi-delusional older sister Lili (Aziza Semaan). Both these older women give superb performances and add depth and texture - and not a little melancholy - to the film.
The screenplay avoids pat romantic resolutions for its characters - indeed, we only see one relationship becoming complete, with hints at two more, and one of them is not a heterosexual one. But this is life - and it's certainly life in Beirut, it seems, as the film's mood is jumping with veracity. The title refers to the caramel that the salon uses for waxing - something to remember on trivia nights.
Camerawork and music add to the sense of place, and what the film lacks in big thematic issues, it make up for in its freshness and instinctive filmmaking.
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INTERVIEW WITH ANNE-DOMINIQUE TOUSSAINT
CAST: Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad, Adel Karam, Siham Haddad, Aziza Semaan, Fatmeh Safa, Dimitri Staneofski
PRODUCER: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
DIRECTOR: Nadine Labaki
SCRIPT: Nadine Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Yves Shennaoui
EDITOR: Laure Gardette
MUSIC: Khaled Mouzannar
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Cynthia Zahar
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 18, 2008