Before dismissing Caramel as just a Lebanese chick-flick, it’s important to look closely at first-time director/co-writer/star Nadine Labaki’s flowing, elegant film. Because it’s the simple pleasures in Caramel that make it so enjoyable. Though I’ve never owned a beauty salon in Beirut, never obsessed over an affair with a married man – heck, I’ve never been a woman, Labaki makes it easy to observe the universal ideas of longing and belonging that Caramel gives us.
What the story lacks in originality, it makes up in vibrancy. It tells of beauty salon owner, Layale (Labaki), and the troubles and joys of her clients, co-workers and neighbors, as they bond while grooming and ripping hair out of each others’ bodies with a customary melted sugar solution (the film’s namesake).
The simplicity of the storyline doesn’t mean the movie is easy to take in. There’s a lot to comprehend for viewers unfamiliar with Lebanese culture, but Labaki makes those of us from other countries want to—and more importantly, able to. Although at first I didn’t understand why Layale’s discussion with a hotel clerk was so awkward, Labaki’s dialogue showed me, without telling me, that only married people are allowed to rooms together in Lebanon – and like that, the whole scene came together.
It’s a lack of a Lebanese reference point that caused all the theatrical reviews of Caramel to relate it to films like Barbershop and Beautyshop (the feminine installment in the ‘Shop oeuvre). And though such comparisons are apt, they don’t account for the softness and subtlety in Caramel that the former films lack. Though the movie is about the foibles and trials of salon workers and patrons, there’s an underlying concern with the modernity of Lebanese women and the culture’s transition into westernism. Each woman in the film must balance her issues of burgeoning cross-culturalization with a society moving slightly slower than she’d like.
Layale must reconcile her unfulfilling affair with a married man against her parent’s wishes for her to marry (and move out of the house, as customary in Lebanese culture). Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) must figure out how to tell her Muslim fiancé that he will not be her first partner. And Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), an aging model/actress, becomes more and more disillusioned with the seemingly western industry, and can barely keep up with her picturesque, European-looking juniors.
Labaki frequently evokes western images to suggest its infiltration of Beirut, and Jamale’s dyed red hair symbolizes her own attempt at westernization (and I suppose the revealed roots might symbolize her falling behind). Labaki uses this hair-color image frequently and it’s commonly accompanied with a short length: A large picture of a French model with short red hair is on display in Layale’s salon, Si Belle (though the “B” has fallen off, making a clever, albeit silly, pun, “si elle”).
Aunt Rose (Sihame Haddad), an aging seamstress working down the street, finally decides to accept a date against the wishes of her mentally deficient older sister, and dyes her hair red in preparation. And when a gorgeous unnamed clientele (with a crush on Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a short-haired lesbian working at the salon) goes against the wishes of her family and chops off all her hair, a dark monochromatic frame is flourished in the corner by a simple red wig. The mother of all red-hair images, unearths when the wife of Layale’s adulterer comes into “Si Belle” with a bright amber coif glistening around her artificially freckled face.
Though red hair symbolizes a longing for western post-modernity, it more closely illustrates the urge for contentment and an acceptance of stature, which is something all these women see in the western world (regardless of how those in the West see their own femininity). In a pivotal scene, Nisrine displays this longing for westernism perfectly. When she goes to a hospital to surgically reconstruct her hymen – so her husband won’t know he’s not the first – she discusses the merits of giving herself a French pseudonym with her friends (“While we’re at it, let’s choose a French name – Marie, Julie. I can’t be a ‘Marie’ just once?”), before settling on “Julie Pompidou” much to the dismay of her fellow salon workers. “But you can’t speak French!” Layale proclaims. If there was ever a separation between perceived westernism and reality, this scene is it.
For the film’s final image, Labaki focuses on Rima’s crush giddily admiring her new, short hairdo in a store window. She may not be out of the closet yet, but for the moment, a defiant and beautiful hair style will do. At the film’s end, Labaki’s characters haven’t solved their problems, as they realistically couldn’t, but they begin to accept their places in society and can begin to be proud of who they are. With a message like that, perhaps Caramel is just a Lebanese chick flick, but it’s a damn good one.