"Caramel" is as honey-colored as it sounds, but there's pain involved we don't normally associate with candy. For one thing, the gooey title confection is used here not for eating but for waxing unwanted female body hair. With each swatch of follicles ripped up, out come the sisterly secrets.
Lebanon's officially submitted Oscar entrant (it didn't get nominated), "Caramel" is a sort of Lebanese "Steel Magnolias" or Beirut "Beauty Shop," depending on your movie generation. Its bustling cast acts out familiar melodramas and dilemmas, but the novel setting makes up for the timeworn plotlines. In a culture where female sexuality is problematic at best, how is a woman supposed to feed both body and heart? Through makeovers, support, and necessary lies, "Caramel" curtly answers.
The movie's the work of co-writer/star Nadine Labaki, an established director of Arabic music videos making her feature film debut. She plays Layale, the proprietress of a rundown beauty salon named Sibelle in a Beirut neighborhood, and she's carrying on an affair with an unseen married man that has her friends and employees shaking their heads. How can a tough-minded businesswoman be a masochistic noodle when it comes to men?
Hers is one of many small dramas unfolding beneath the bell-shaped dryers. Layale's best stylist, Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), is engaged to Bassam (Ismail Antar), an educated young man she's sure will go ballistic when he discovers she's not a virgin. Jamale (Gisele Aouad), an actress and regular client, is in denial about her own menopause. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the shop's clean-up girl and shampooist, likes women but seems wary of doing anything about it.
Across the street from the salon, late love appears for a dowdy but elegant seamstress (Sihame Haddad), who may have to choose between her dapper client (Dimitri Staneofski) and her sister, the neighborhood crazy lady (Aziza Semaan) for whom she cares. The movie's implied moral is that only the women who rely on the others for solidarity will get to move forward by the end.
Each of these stories interweave with each other, sometimes predictably and elsewhere with freshly observed detail. Nisrine's solution to the "problem" of her missing chastity, for instance, is both extreme and shocking in the matter-of-factness with which she goes through with it. Look, Labaki is saying to the men of her culture: This is what we women do to live in your world. And you don't know the half of it.
Consequently, the male characters are relegated to the sidelines, as are Mideast current events: The only politics here are gender politics. Layale's lover is never seen because who he is isn't important. What matters is how she'll react when his wife turns up at the shop looking for a leg wax to please her man. The film does wheel out a shy local police officer (Adel Karam) with a crush on the proprietress - understandable, since Labaki's a weary knockout - but it makes sure to give him a makeover in the bargain.
"Caramel" is warmly shot (by Yves Sehnaoui) and comes with a strong, burbling soundtrack of Arab pop; it slides down easily and occasionally too easily. Rima's attraction to women, for example, remains a matter of loaded glances and seriously sublimated shampoos. The movie's rated PG but you can feel the randy, truth-telling R (at least) banging around inside it, aching to kick the doors down. Labaki knows the men of her culture couldn't handle the truth. The fact is, neither could ours.