Caramel – out now

Named after the sticky mixture of lemon, sugar and water that is used as an alternative to leg wax, Caramel is an ensemble comedy set in and around a Beirut beauty salon where the women struggle to make the best of a society which so often limits their options.

Director Nadine Labaki plays thirty-something salon owner Layale. The daughter of Christian parents, Layale is in the throes of an ill-advised affair with a married man.

Her Muslim co-worker Nasrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is about to be married to the man of her dreams, but goes to desperate measures to hide the fact she is not a virgin from her conservative in-laws. Rose (Sihame Haddad), the seamstress from upstairs, would llove to be in a relationship, but must spend all her spare time caring for her senile older sister.

Tomboy-ish Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) finds an outlet for her sexual desire in the mysterious female client who keeps coming back for head massages. Facing the menopause head on, Jamale (Gisele Aouad) enlists the help of her colleagues to make a come-back in the acting world. A running gag is the adhesive tape she uses to create a budget face-lift.

Interestingly, no mention is made of the terrible torments visited upon Lebanon by its recent, tragic history. Instead Labaki focuses on personal intrigues in the city she describes as “my Beirut” – an up-and-coming capital bathed in honeyed sunshine.

The premise is hardly new – the beauty salon as a social hub where women live out their inconsequential hopes and dreams. However, Labaki is a slick and knowing filmmaker whose cast of non-professional actresses bring a fresh charm to the genre. Their behaviour seems almost unscripted at times. In the case of Sihame Haddad, who plays Rose, it is difficult to believe her acting experience is so limited. Each subplot receives our full attention, but is left hanging in the end as just another strand in the rich tapestry of feminine experience.

Caramel is a lovingly shaped, bittersweet comedy which captures the buzz of small female victories in a city torn by conflict and contradictions. The beauty salon offers comfort and hope to women restricted by society’s expectations.

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