I seem to be bouncing between India and the Middle East with my film watching lately, I should really try for a bit more variety but when the films are as good as Caramel it’s so hard to resist. So to Lebanon, and a beauty salon in Beirut in particular.
Caramel is a very female-focused film and not just because the central characters are all female and three of them work in a beauty salon. There are male characters that we see quite a lot of and even have important roles in the plot, such as Nisrine’s fiancé Bassam and police officer Youssef, but while they are important in the girls lives they are peripheral, the important relationships are their friendships and familial relationships with other women. For example, for all that boss Layale’s (Nadine Labaki, who also directs and co-wrote the film) storyline is on the surface about her relationship with a married man and obliviousness towards her policeman admirer, her most significant relationship in the film is a slightly obsessive fascination with the woman her married beau will not leave for her. This is underlined by the way in which he is only ever seen in silhouette or from behind, we spend more time watching her wait for his call or the sound of his car horn than actually with him, whereas we see his wife and in detail, first in a photograph Layale obtains when he leaves his wallet in her car, then later in person when Layale is performing beauty treatments on her. In fact we even spend more time on his young daughter than him – and she and Layale only interact through waving and smiling at each other through a tropical fish tank.
There are some great fun, sometimes absurdly comical, and joyous moments (Rima and Nisrine’s unfettered joy in the face of Rose coming to get her hair done and the way it reflects back onto Rose as though to give her confidence that she’s allowed to be happy) in the film that keeps the overall tone of the film light and the audience smiling. However, it’s the quiet moments with a bittersweet edge that stayed with me afterwards. Some moments warm the heart – like Rima’s unspoken courtship of long-haired Siham with hair care or Nisrine’s pre-wedding conversation with her strictly Muslim mother that underlines their love for each other despite their different life choices – whereas others break it into little pieces – like the scene where Rose puts on and then takes off her make-up in the mirror while her elder sister rambles invective and endearments at her through the door. I suppose it is at its heart a film about love, just not romantic love the way films normally are, but all kinds of love; no less full of joy and pain, moments of grace and sacrifice than any other kind.
The film is dedicated to ‘my Beirut’ and in certain ways does indeed feel like a love letter to the city. It doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions of the city, as willing to show the every day frustrations of life as the joys, but it does feel as though it was made with a great deal of love for the place.