On the surface, the premise of Caramel is nothing new: the lives of five female friends centered around the local beauty salon, this time set in Beirut, Lebanon. Writer-director-star Nadine Labaki (pictured above) manages to render the material fresh, however, by exploring the juxtaposition of modern Western behavior within traditional Middle Eastern society. Each woman in the film is making her way through a life filled with contradictions, desire often taking a backseat to duty — particularly in the case of tomboy Rima, who falls for another woman.
Warning: Minor Spoilers
Labaki plays Layale, the owner of the Beirut beauty shop at the heart of the movie. Layale is entrenched in a love affair with a married man; her friends quietly disapprove whenever she rushes out the door for a brief afternoon tryst, summoned by the faceless man’s car horn.
Like virtually all young, unmarried Lebanese women, Layale still lives at home with her parents. Eventually she must reconcile her need for her lover with both her desire not to disappoint her family and her devotion to Christianity.
Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) works at the salon alongside her best friend. She’s a rambunctious and outgoing Muslim woman who’s about to be married to a nice young Muslim man — and she’s not a virgin. Though this isn’t an outrageous concept in most countries today, it puts Nisrine in a difficult position.
She dreads her fiancé discovering her secret, for there’s a chance she’ll shame both of their families and he won’t marry her. In a desperate bid to maintain a "pure" façade, Nisrine resorts to a horrific "stitching up" — a notion that’s even more astounding because it’s based on real-life decisions made every day by young women in Lebanon.
Gisèle Aouad is Jamale, an actress struggling to garner film roles that put her in direct competition with far-younger counterparts. She’s in the salon on an almost daily basis, getting her hair done, getting waxed, made up and going to extreme lengths to prove to everyone around her that she’s not, in fact, menopausal.
Another visitor to the salon is Rose (Sihame Haddad), a lonely, older seamstress who works next door. Rose has sacrificed her own happiness to spend virtually every moment caring for her slightly crazy elderly sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan). She meets a sweet gentleman who takes a shine to her, and soon must decide whether or not to take a chance on love.
Finally, there’s Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the tomboy of the bunch who shampoos all of the salon’s clients. She’s a bit quiet and shy — until "the beautiful customer" (Fatmeh Safa) walks through the door. Rima and the mysterious woman exchange glances, and before long the woman is regularly taking advantage of Rima’s shampooing services.
All of these women are, in one way or another, obsessed with appearances, whether it’s a literal obsession with her looks, as with Jamale (who resorts to taping her eyes back to rid herself of wrinkles), or giving the appearance of living one life while desiring another, as with Rima. Each of them is desperately afraid of looking or behaving as society tells her she shouldn’t.
In the film’s press materials, Nadine Labaki reinforced this point: "The Lebanese woman always feels as if she is stealing her moments of happiness. She has to use all kinds of ploys all the time to live the way she wants, and when she manages it, she feels guilty. We’d be wrong to think that they are free. At every stage in our lives, we are given an example to follow that, of course, doesn’t correspond to what we want to be. The Lebanese woman, be she Muslim or Christian, lives a contradiction between what she is, what she wants to be and what she is allowed to be."
This concept is perhaps best expressed in Rima’s story line. While she and the mysterious customer are obviously attracted to each other (and a shampoo becomes a bit more than just a shampoo), Rima is stuck firmly in the closet. Sadly enough, homosexuality is still largely taboo in Lebanese society, and the film provides no easy answers for Rima, her beautiful friend or the audience.
Despite such serious themes bubbling beneath the surface, Caramel is not a heavy-handed political affair; it is, at its heart, a romantic comedy. On the other hand, it’s not as cloyingly sweet as the film’s title may suggest — in fact, "caramel" refers to the method used for hair removal in the Middle East; it’s painful and delicious.