The fictional Si Belle beauty salon of Beirut, Lebanon, in which the new film Caramel largely takes place, is not a likely setting for those wonderfully masculine traits of Hollywood cinema. Among other things, I was expecting a healthy dose of humor, intrigue and exposure to interesting cultural memes from a foreign perspective.
Long review short, I was right. The beautiful Lebanese director and star of the film, Nadine Labaki, presents her Lebanon in very human terms and provides her viewers with a troubling, and yet warm and affecting, glimpse into the lives of Lebanese women.
Each of the women the movie focuses on deals with a different issue affecting women caught between Western modernization and Eastern tradition.
The common thread that unites all of these women’s struggles is the denial of self due to the cultural and moral constraints of the world they live in. Whether it’s Rose, Layale or any of the other women who are obviously living a lie in their own way, there is a bitterness brought about by self-denial which belies their efforts in love and life. The ways in which the characters confront this aspect of their search for happiness are varied and have differing results.
Of course, the unhappiness which these women face and, in some cases, put themselves through for love, does not mire the film in a tragic vein. The humor which the characters find in their experiences and which they use to comfort each other is a constant presence in the film. For every disturbing or unsettling moment in each vignette, there is a touching and life-affirming sliver of humanity somewhere else. Like the stuff from which the film gets its namesake, being a woman in Lebanon can be sweet and fun given the proper company, but it can also be sticky and painful (the substance is used for hair removal in Si Belle).
Although Caramel is not a particularly profound or novel movie, what it does, it does right. I found it very easy to identify with the characters’ plights and laugh with them when it was appropriate. It’s easy to recommend this movie to someone looking for a culturally unique perspective on romance and drama on a small scale.