Dedicated “To my Beirut,” Nadine Labaki’s Caramel (Sukkar banat) is a carefully observed, splendidly composed soap opera. Focused on five women who work in or frequent a salon de beauté, this first feature is assured and mostly sweet, its attention to details of place and moment conjuring a sort of visual poetry that buoys its formulaic storytelling.
The predictable elements are heartbreak and survival, the capacity of women as a class to endure oppression, support one another unconditionally, and feel deeply both pleasure and pain. Owner of the Si Belle salon, Layale (Labaki) daily laments her affair with the married Rabih, but at the same time, looks forward to their passionate rendezvous. The camera hangs back during their trysts in the back seat of his car, parked near a junkyard or underpass, their shadowy forms small and entwined; when Layale makes arrangements to meet by phone, she hides under the covers at home, knowing that her mother will disapprove, feeling vaguely uncomfortable herself. Though Rabih has promised repeatedly to leave his wife, Layale’s ability to believe the lie is running down.
She’s so wrapped up in pleasing and keeping the terminally elusive Rabih that Layale doesn’t much notice the elegant traffic cop Youssef (Adel Karam), who admires her daily from afar. He imagines that she parks her car illegally so that he will have to approach her with threats of a ticket, then sits in a café across the street from the salon, watching her through the front window. As Layale speaks on the phone with her lover, Youssef speaks to her, the camera cutting back and forth between them so they share a conversation without conversing at all. “She’s at the window,” sighs Youssef, “she’s looking at me without seeing me.”
Layale looks with a poignant, subdued envy at her friend and coworker Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), affianced to Bassam (Ismaïl Antar). And yet, even their officially sanctioned relationship is troubled, first by the daily fact of de facto curfews. Sitting in their car after a celebratory dinner with family, they’re observed by a policeman, who wonders what they’re doing out, unmarried, in the “middle of the night.” When the officer demands proof that Nisrine is Basaam’s fiancée, the couple understands what’s coming next. Bassam’s refusal to get out of his car leads to an abrupt cut to the expected next scene: in the police station, where Nisrine waits with other arrestees and Bassam appears bruised and bloodied, beaten for his disrespect. Facing such repressions and suffering for her fiancé, Nisrine is also bothered by a secret she eventually reveals to her friends at the salon, namely, that “Bassam is not my first.” With few options under Muslim expectations, Nisrine takes up her friends’ offer to accompany her to a doctor who performs a hymenoplasty before the wedding.
Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) lives with another sort of forbidden secret, her attraction to women. The film’s designated “spunky” girl, she wears her hair short, rides the bus to work (with requisite Discman), and doesn’t wax her legs. For the most part, she watches her friends act out their melodramas, though she perks up when Siham (Fatmeh Safa), a stunning client with long dark hair, begins coming into the salon regularly, her visits reduced to pretty montages of sensuous hair-washes, their mutually desirous gazes accentuated by Rima’s music selections and a shared silence. Though Rima’s face lights up each time Siham enters the shop and their encounters plainly sexual and thrilling, their limits are also plain, especially as they’re confined to the public space of the salon.
As Rima faces regrets down the road, two other storylines concern aging women’s fears and choices. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a client recently divorced and still bitter, first appears frustrated with her new “look” as she inspects herself in a salon mirror. As Nisrine tries to soothe her, it’s Layale, returning from a brief afternoon assignation, who convinces Jamale that the hairstyle is “trendy.” “I look old and cockeyed,” worries Jamale (whereupon Layale offers to “tie your hair in a way that will lift your eyes without the tape” that Nisrine had been using). Jamale spends hours on her treadmill at home, watching her teenagers watch TV and long, painful minutes auditioning for commercials. Hoping to convince her professional rivals and other strangers that she’s still young enough, Jamale fakes her menstrual cycle, an elaborate routine that’s both sad and bizarre, not to mention an indication of the tyranny of Westernized pop culture even in an environment explicitly dedicated to respecting “tradition.”
Also ill at ease with the prospect of aging, seamstress Rose (Sihame Haddad) faces her future daily in the form of her older, cantankerous, and mentally disabled sister Lili (Aziza Semaan). While Lili rants on about the phone call she’s expecting or the trip she’s planning, Rose quietly attends to business, hunched over her sewing and quietly resigned to looking after Lili for the rest of her life. When a client, Charles (Dimitri Staneofski) shows respectful “interest,” Rose ponders other possibilities, going so far as to take up Layale and Nisrine’s longstanding offer that she have her hair done at the shop.
Repeatedly framed by doorways and windows, each woman appears on her own sort of threshold. At once restricted and vivacious, looking forward and back, they find in one another compassion and resolve. Waiting for her married lover to call, Layale watches her parents and younger brother, seated before the television. When Layale retreats to the bathroom to call Rabih, the connection is bad, and though she hears him, he can’t hear her—or so it seems. She emerges, disappointed and feeling lonely, to finder her mother and a coterie of women in the kitchen, gossiping and laughing around the table. The camera again stays back, watching Layale’s gradual immersion in the warmth of the group. “You’ll be married soon,” offers one neighbor, but in this brief, gentle moment, it hardly matters.