Stereotypes about the Middle East are everywhere in the West these days, so it’s always a joy when someone decides to give us a fresh perspective. Think of Mideastern women, and the first image we’re inclined to think of is a chador or burqa, the female forced to cover her hair, her limbs, perhaps even her face, by a male-dominated society.
Director Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” a Lebanese chick flick, glances at that image and brushes right by it, with chin held high and teased hair flowing, leaving behind an afterburn of rosewater and pheromones. Appropriately enough, this portrait of modern, more or less liberated Lebanese women, is set in a beauty salon.
Labaki herself stars as Layale, a single woman in her 30s who’s the owner of a small salon called Si Belle in downtown Beirut. Unusually, for a Lebanese film, “Caramel” avoids any discussion of the country’s decades of conflict; this is a forward-looking, optimistic film. But the aftereffects of war can be glimpsed all around, not least in Layale’s storefront, where the the neon sign has a few letters missing or falling off. Electrical power cuts out at least once a day, and Layale’s butch co-worker Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) has to go out back and rev up the backup generator, while everyone’s blow-dries come to a halt.
Working alongside Layale and Rima is Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), who’s in her 20s and looking to marry her steady boyfriend. Regulars at the shop are Jamale (Gisele Auouad), an aging actress/model who’s trying desperately to keep up her appearance, and Rose (Siham Haddad), an elderly woman who lives nearby, working as a tailor and caring for her senile sister Lili (Aziza Semaan.)
All the women have guy troubles, except Rima, who’s falling for gorgeous client Siham (Fatmeh Safa, who looks like a Lebanese Penelope Cruz), and the film focuses on the camaraderie and support the girls give each other.
This may seem like “Sex And The City: Beirut,” but unlike the pampered strumpets of that series — whose worries run along the lines of: Should I marry that fantastically rich older broker or keep boffing that male model hottie? — Labaki’s women feel like real down-to-Earth types. The problems they encounter speak to specifics: Layale wonders if there’s a future in being her married lover’s “other woman,” Rima is very cautious about revealing her sexual proclivity, Nisrine needs to restore her virginity before marriage (surgically), and Rose wonders how she can ever meet a man when addled Lili keeps getting in the way.
Beirut — despite the wars — has always been a relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan place, where West and East, modernity and tradition coexisted. Labaki shows the tensions inherent in that mix, especially with the encroach of today’s more conservative Islam. One scene has Nisrine and her boyfriend talking quietly in a parked car when a soldier arrives and demands to know what they’re doing; not believing that the guy is her financee, the soldier hauls him off to the police station where he gets roughed up. Similarly, Layale goes looking for a hotel where she can spend a weekend with her lover; she’s turned away, humiliatingly, from place after place because she can’t provide proof of marriage. She ends up having to stay in the seediest love hotel imaginable. (Though, the spirit of this film lies in the way she spends half a day cleaning the room and filling it with flowers and balloons.)
Labaki is not in thrall to modernity, however; while her characters are free to dress how they wish, to flaunt their beauty with makeup, high heels, and spaghetti-strap dresses, Labaki is also attuned to how beauty — or the need to maintain it — creates its own bonds. The metaphor is contained in the film’s title: the sticky caramel the women prepare in the kitchen is sweet and sensuous, but it hurts like hell when you use it for hair removal.
Aside from bringing a very real sensuality and passion to her on-screen character, Labaki excels as a director, displaying a winning knack for light comedy, and a very deft touch when it comes to the drama. She’s helped immensely by Laure Gardette’s subtly attuned editing, which often uses shots to imply things without having to spell them out in the dialogue. Rima, for example, is never said to be a lesbian — a taboo in the Middle East — but the sensuous way she shampoos Sihan’s hair makes everything clear. Sometimes it is best to let your fingers do the talking.