When a foreign film manages to make that break across the border and garners international success there’s often the expectation that it should act as an ambassador for its country of origin, especially when that nation is not known for its prolific cinematic output. But where does that leave Nadine Labaki’s sweet Lebanese romance, Caramel? Can any film successfully walk that balance between the light-hearted and the weighty?
For a beauty salon, Si Bette isn’t much to look at. A ramshackle salon in the city of Beirut which requires the use of a second generator if anyone wants to use a blow-dryer while the fridge is on, it provides a living, a support-group and not to mention a hive of gossip for four hairdressers who are trying to deal with the expectations that come with being an unmarried woman in modern-day Beirut.
Layale (played by the film’s director, Nadine Labaki) is having an affair with a married man and is struggling not only with the prerequisite guilt of her situation but also with the practicalities of doing so in a city that requires proof of marriage to book a double-bedroom and whose police deems a man and woman sitting in a car ‘indecent behaviour’. Her friend, Nisrine has the opposite problem; engaged to the son of a traditional Muslim family she carries a secret that prevents her from being the pure daughter-in-law she is expected to be. Meanwhile, divorcée mother of two teenage children Jamale continues to pursue an acting career despite her increasing years betraying the contrast between her and her competition, and quiet tom-boy Rima finds herself catching the eye of an attractive, female client.
These four women are not the only ones in town with troubles, however, as a supporting cast of clients and acquaintances orbit around them, pulled in by the gravity of their little salon. The local parking attendant smitten with Layale, the lonely elderly seamstress with a rare chance for romance and her senile sister whose penchant for collecting parking tickets are equally as vital; all weaving into the rich mix that is Caramel.
And it’s this sense of community that really stand out in Labaki’s film. This is not a film about Beirut. As one might assume from the aforementioned plot points, many of the situations are arguably culturally exclusive to its location but it’s to the film’s credit that it reaches below the surface and pulls at the strings of far more universal themes of loneliness and the pressure of others. It matters not whether Nisrine is sitting at a table full of Lebanese Muslims or East Finchley Catholics, her discomfort is all too familiar and it’s not difficult to imagine changing a few cultural touch-stones to find an above-par western romcom with the same narrative still completely in tact.
Caramel is a film about people rather than place, and therefore it’s through the central performances that the world really comes to life. The vibrant, lived-in atmosphere can be largely credited to the four leads who balance often exaggerated comic turns with genuine notes of pathos in their respective situations. The balance is not always perfect as sometimes a trivial subplot clashes jarringly with a profound emotional moment, but this is only to be expected from a film that clearly never sets out to ‘tackle’ anything. This is the story of four (or more) romantics who have been unlucky in love and yet keep trying, and so the film’s tone fittingly takes on the feel of the eponymous burnt sugar the girls use in their waxing. Sweet without being saccharine, the film plays out through the gold-tinted glasses of those looking for love. It is not the main meal. It is not the balanced diet of historical context and cultural resonance that are the meat and potatoes of films that want to be ‘about’ something. You won’t fill up on it, but neither is it the sickly sweet imitation product of Hollywood’s own brand.
And it’s Labaki’s deliciously sepia cinematography that elevates what could be a trivial narrative. Her film is beautifully shot and allows the narrative to play out in a surprisingly subtle and nuanced manner given the extravagant performances. Every character is awarded the appropriate respect and time of day given that, for them, they are the star of their own classic tale of romance. Invoking other genre stand-bys such as Steel Magnolias and the other similarly-titled western-friendly offering Chocolat, Caramel is an ensemble piece that genuinely cares about each of its individual components. Its only possible failing being that Labaki sometimes awards herself more than her fair share of screen time – clearly even she feels she is the star of her story.
Caramel may flirt with the anachronistic studio-era concept of being a ‘woman’s picture’ but when the only current offering for strong female leads in cinemas sees entire platoons of the Boots ‘here come the girls’ set marching blindly into cinemas to watch four over-paid harridans bemoaning the lack of haute couture in Abu Dhabi there has never been a better time to discover the mature and believable view of romance purported by Caramel. Who says romcoms have to be dumb screen fodder?