When I was thinking of more “wedding” movies for this month, I remembered this quiet little film from Lebanon. Though there is a wedding here, it actually focuses more on the intertwining lives of five women. And while it might lack the depth that would have come from limiting the number of subplots, it’s a great ensemble piece that avoids politics or the usual focus on the negative aspects of the region.
“Caramel revolves around the intersecting lives of five Lebanese women. Layale (Nadine Labaki) works in a beauty salon in Beirut along with two other women, Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel). Each one has a problem: Layale is stuck in a dead-end relationship with a married man; Nisrine is no longer a virgin but is set to be married and in her conservative family where pre-marital sex is not accepted; Rima is attracted to women; Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), a regular customer and wannabe actress, is worried about getting old; Rose (Sihame Haddad), a tailoress with a shop next to the salon, is an old woman who had devoted her life to taking care of her mentally unbalanced elder sister Lili (Aziza Semaan), but has found her first love.”
Yes, there are stereotypes here but star, director and cowriter Labaki manages to give some of them a unique Lebanese twist. When Layale tries to book a hotel room in which she and her married lover can celebrate their anniversary, she repeatedly runs into problems with the need to convince hotel managers that their relationship is legitimate and finally ends up in a cheap motel that doesn’t ask any questions. Nisrine and her fiance stop to talk in his car after spending the evening at his family’s house only to run into a cop who demands proof that they’re engaged, leading to a scuffle and trip to the local jail when pissed off Basaam refuses to get out of the car or hand over his id. And that’s before Nisrine has to try and cover up the fact that on their wedding night, Basaam won’t be her first.
Rima, who appears to be still coming out to herself about her inclinations, faces a society that, while more tolerant than some in the Middle East, still has a lot of opposition to GBLT society. Jamale’s story is that which most women face when they depend on their – now fading – looks. While Rose must decide if she can take a chance on a potential romance while still having to look after her sister.
At times, this isn’t an easy film to watch as some of the characters make mistakes – repeatedly in Layale’s case – or choices it’s hard for me to agree with. Most of us have probably done some silly things in the name of love but it takes Layale a long time to finally hit bottom and be ready for the attention of a lovely man who’s admired her from afar. Adel Karam plays Youseff – a cop who has written Layale countless tickets (though he’s never enforced them) who has a great scene in which he improvises a conversation he’d love to have with her while he watches her from across the street. That sounds creepy when I type it but he’s a sweetheart and even willing to subject himself to a trip to a beauty salon in order to get the one he adores to notice him.
Nisrine loves her fiance but faces trouble should it be find out she’s not a virgin. It’s an OB/GYN trip and two stitches to the rescue. The wedding night eve scene she has with her mother – who BTW does a much better job than Violet Bridgerton in readying her daughter for the experience mom thinks Nisrine hasn’t had yet – is one of the sweetest in the film. It had me tearing up watching the mother love. The positive of Nisrine’s story is balanced by the sadness of Rose’s. Will she rethink the choice she makes if given another chance? The film remains mute about it. Rima and the beautiful Fatmeh Safa also have an open ended story but their budding feelings are crystal clear even if never taken beyond some truly sensual yet totally G rated shots. If you think hair washing can’t be sensual, watch this.
But what really sells the movie to me is that it’s a sweet, though not sickly sweet, film of female friendship. So much here is conveyed with expressions and camera shots that it’s hard to believe it’s Labaki’s first film. And it’s funny too! Check out Youseff’s apprehension when the women begin to circle him then call for the melted caramel to touch up his eyebrows and remove his moustache. Then watch for the familial and friendly joy that bubbles through the wedding celebration (which I would love to have seen more of) – though beware of doves flying overhead. If you’re used to Beruit and Lebanon only being accompanied by the adjective “war torn” see this film for a different perspective. I know several Lebanese friends and it’s wonderful to finally get a positive glimpse of the city they love.
Currently this movie is available from Netflix as either a rental or streaming. It can also be viewed at youtube for a rental fee.