Caramel (France/Lebanon, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Caramel could easily be dubbed a Lebanese version of Salon. The movie, the directorial debut of writer/director/actress Nadine Labaki, follows the lives and loves of five women whose paths criss-cross in Beirut. As is often the case with ensemble efforts like this one, some of the stories are more interesting than others and this has the unwelcome side-effect of making proceedings stumble whenever one of the less compelling women takes center stage. Unlike some foreign films, Caramel is easily accessible for viewers of all nations and cultures, although the subtitles will degrade its box office potential in the United States.

Most of the action takes place in and around a Beirut beauty parlor where three of the five principal characters work. Layale (writer/director Labaki) is a young woman who's carrying on an affair with a married man. She dreams of romantic getaways with him; he tries to balance his quick assignations with her and his devotion to his wife and daughter. Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) is engaged to be married to her stubborn, old-fashioned beau. But a problem looms as the wedding approaches - she's not a virgin, and that will not go over well with her alpha-male husband-to-be. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) shows no interest in men but is infatuated with a female customer (Fatmed Safa). Their "courtship" consists of washings and cuttings and nothing more. Rose (Sihame Haddad), the aunt of one of the salon workers (although this title may be an honorarium rather than the result of a blood relationship), owns a small sewing/tailor's business. She must juggle caring for the senile Lily (Aziza Semaan) and pursuing a romance with a dapper customer. Finally, Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a beauty shop regular, is a would-be actress who spends her life pursuing the next screen test.

Labaki gives herself the plum role. Layale is the most fully developed character and her story becomes more than just another tale of an illicit love affair between a young beauty and an older man who will never leave his wife. Thrown into the mix is a policeman (Adel Karam) who watches her from afar with stars in his eyes and imagines conversations with her. There's a lot of humanity and comedy in Layale's tale, and Labaki is an appealing actress. One often wishes that more of the movie had been about this character and less about some of the others.

Equally engaging, but with far less screen time, is Rima's infatuation with a customer who seemingly shares her feelings. In a culture where lesbianism is taboo, nothing overt is presented, although it would be hard to miss the metaphors. The erotic scalp massages represent foreplay and the eventual hair-cutting takes things a step further. Labaki ensures that a cosmopolitan viewer will understand Rima's sexuality and what's going on while keeping everything in the subtext.

Nisrine is somewhat less compelling since her big dilemma is how she can fool her husband-to-be (who is shown to be a boor in an early scene) that their wedding night is her sexual initiation. Admittedly, this is a significant issue in some cultures, but an inordinate amount of time is devoted to planning and executing the scheme. Part of the problem is that Nisrine isn't well developed so a lot of her scenes feel more like filler than a legitimate storyline.

Rose's tale has an element of poignancy to it and would have been more palatable had it not been for the unbearably screechy and over-the-top performance of Aziza Semaan, who plays Lily. This woman's high-pitched, high-volume voice is like nails on a chalkboard and she annoys every time she appears. Unfortunately, she's in about 75% of Rose's scenes. So, while the character is interesting and her story is tinged with equal elements of hope and sadness, Lily's presence is both a detraction and a distraction.

Finally, there's nothing remotely intriguing about the would-be actress, Jamale. Gisele Aouad's portrayal is fine but the character should have been consigned to the scrap heap. Jamale has virtually no backstory and all she does is show up at the shop to gossip with the girls then go to a few screen tests, one of which is presented in excruciating detail. I'm not sure why this story has been included since it's the only one that doesn't deal with sexual longing in one form or another.

While there's a wide variability in the overall quality of the stories assembled to make this movie, Labaki shows a deft hand in mixing dramatic and comedic elements. There are no tonal problems and the humor remains low-key. Caramel also rejects Hollywood conventions about how romances should develop; some audience members may be unsatisfied that all of the women do not end up with their soul mates by the time the end credits roll. I appreciate that element of the movie; it's refreshing for a romantic comedy not to follow the formula by rote. I only wish I could be as enthusiastic about the amount of screen time accorded to certain characters who are more tedious than endearing.

Caramel (France/Lebanon, 2007)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-01
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled French and Arabic
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1