Archive for February 2008


February 1, 2008

Beirut is a beautiful place, except for the crap that has nothing to do with most of the people who live there and just try to get through the day. So we Americans were told by Anthony Bourdain in his excellent No Reservations episode filmed in Beirut when the 2006 Israeli bombings started, and so we are also told by Caramel, which sketches a country in a sort of blurred limbo between Islamic fundamentalism and a more Westernized, Catholic-inflected lifestyle.

Caramel is candy; it is also used to rip unwanted hair out of female flesh. Pleasure and pain, much like falling in love. The movie, a first feature by director-cowriter-star Nadine Labaki, is a gentle group portrait of Lebanese women dealing with stirrings of the heart. Most of the episodic plot unfolds in and around a beauty salon, an island of femininity in a city still patriarchal. Layale (Labaki) is involved with a married man, whose face we never see. Nisrine (Yasmine al-Masri) is about to be married, though her fiancé doesn’t know he won’t be her first. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is a has-been actress trying to get a gig in a soap commercial. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is falling for a raven-haired client. Rose (Sihame Haddad) might have something going with a French-speaking gentleman.

The problems are unsurprising — the stuff of soap operas — but what is surprising is Labaki’s refusal to manufacture conflict. Layale meets the wife of her lover, but nothing big happens. Really, nothing big ever happens in the movie; nobody dies in order to pull the group closer together, nobody is disowned, hardly anyone even raises her voice except in celebration. Early on, Nisrine’s fiancé is arrested for mouthing off to a patrolman, but nothing horrible comes of that, either — Youssef (Adel Karam), a policeman nursing a crush on Layale, sees the whole episode for the non-event it is and lets the guy go. Some viewers may be disappointed in the lack of expected narrative beats; others, like me, will find it refreshing. We’re just sitting in on these people’s lives for a while. Their culture, politics and religion set the story apart but remain mere backdrop — the movie is very much set before the 2006 violence. Labaki dedicates Caramel “to my Beirut,” and it’s clear she intends it as a valentine to a beloved place that has long been misrepresented in American headlines.

Quite a bit more than My Big Fat Lebanese Wedding, the film manages to suggest the derangement of people living under a patriarchy — the women who submit to surgery to fake virginity, the men who would like to respect women but haven’t really learned how yet — without being overtly political or even male-bashing. Shot in lush golden browns by Yves Sehnaoui, Caramel is the farthest thing from a grim Middle East tabloid film like The Kite Runner — it respects beauty and the bafflements of love.

Labaki may be the only director-star ever to film a dove pooping on her face, and she generously gives the final shot to a minor character enjoying the freedom of a short new hairdo. As long as she resists Hollywood tropes and continues to tell stories about her Beirut, she’ll be a director to watch.