Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sweet, Not Sticky

Caramel, the debut feature of Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, is set in Beirut, but doesn’t reference bombs, war or political strife. For that alone it is remarkable, because the beleaguered capital city, which has been called the “Paris of the East,” should be known for its interesting, cosmopolitan culture.

Labaki captures the city in all its messy, contradictory beauty in this modest comedy about several women who work at or are customers of a neighborhood beauty salon. The exotically pretty beautician Layale (Labaki) is involved with a married man. She eagerly awaits his phone calls, dropping everything to meet with her lover, who is never seen onscreen. She worries about what her parents, who wonder why she is still unmarried, would think if they knew. Athletic-looking Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is attracted to women, particularly a mysterious customer (Fatmeh Safa) with long, Cher-like hair. The ritual of shampooing becomes a sensual act between Rima and the mystery woman.

Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is engaged to marry Bassam (Ismail Antar), a Muslim from a traditional family. Nisrine panics because she’s not a virgin, a circumstance that could jeopardize her marriage. Nisrine decides to have her hymen surgically repaired, a controversial practice known as “re-virgin surgery.”

One of the salon’s regular customers is Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a divorced actress who is so desperate to avoid growing old she affixes Scotch tape to her face for auditions. Rose (Sihame Haddad), a tailor who owns the shop next door, is burdened with the care of her mentally ill older sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan), who has a penchant for collecting pieces of waste paper from the streets, believing they are love letters.

The preview trailer for Caramel makes it look like a colorful, zany farce in the mode of Pedro Almodóvar, but it really is a rather melancholy work. The stories are laced with sadness and punctuated by the conflicts and contradictions of Lebanon’s culture: between Muslim and Christian faiths, Arabic and French languages, and modern and traditional values. Nisri and her fiancé sit talking in a car, where a soldier questions them because it is an “indecent activity” for unmarried people to sit in a car together. When Layale searches for a hotel where she can have a private anniversary celebration with her lover, each desk clerk demands identification to prove she is married.

The caramel of the title refers to a depilation method popular in the Middle East that employs a mixture of melted sugar, water and lemon juice. Layale performs a caramel bikini wax on her lover’s wife (Fadia Stella), who comes to the salon in search of the treatment which, for the record, looks as painful as any Western technique.

The movie is at its best when depicting the gentle ballet of missed romantic opportunity. In one poetic scene, Layale talks on the phone to her lover, while Youssef (Adel Karam), the shy policeman who admires her, watches from his window and pretends he’s the man Layale is talking to.

There is visual poetry, too, in the bittersweet story of Rose. One afternoon a dapper older gentleman, Charles (Dimitri Stancofski) walks into her shop requesting alterations to an old suit. He eccentrically insists that she make the trousers too short. A nascent romance develops between them, and Rose finally consents to having her hair colored at the salon. Her hair dyed a garish red, Rose sits excitedly before the mirror, applying makeup in preparation for meeting Charles. Lili, locked in her room, whines and berates her, and Rose sadly realizes that romance cannot be hers. Labaki’s direction is lyrical, crosscutting Rose preparing for the date with Charles, waiting patiently at the café. Rose wipes off her makeup, and Charles picks up his hat and leaves.

Nabaki is a promising director with evident talent, so there is no particular pleasure in reporting that this this gentle movie is somewhat underwhelming. With more character and story development, and some more laughs, it would be a great success. As it is, Caramel is a sweet movie that can be admired for raising a window on daily life in Lebanon beyond the familiar grim headlines.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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