Reviews

'Caramel' Is a Splendidly Composed Soap Opera

Repeatedly framed by doorways and windows, each woman in Caramel appears on her own sort of threshold.


Caramel (Sukkar banat)

Director: Nadine Labaki
Cast: Nadine Labaki, Gisèle Aouad, Joanna Moukarzel, Yasmine Elmasri, Sihame Haddad
Rated: R
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Year: 2007
US date: 2010-05-27 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

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.

Premiering on the Sundance Channel on 27 May, as part of the She Said Cinema series, the film tracks predictable heartbreak and survival, the capacity of women as a class to endure oppression and support one another unconditionally. 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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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