As a man, I don’t get invited to many bridal showers, baby showers or restaurant restrooms (although I have a fair idea what the last looks like). The secrets of these provinces are guarded by their occupants, instinctively and collectively, as subversive intervention into a world built, shaped and dominated by men. Naturally, we power-hungry men are a little curious. How can a bridal shower last five hours? At a baby shower, do you talk about the father? What are you doing when you say you’re powdering your nose?
So watching Sukkar Banat, the filmic debut of Lebanese writer, director and star Nadine Labaki, at least for male viewers, is a lot like peeking through the crack in the wall of the girls’ bathroom in high school, except the girls are older, sexier, more complicated, and you don’t have to worry about getting caught. The film is set in a Beirut hairdressing salon, revolving around the intertwined lives of four women: Layale (Labaki), in love with a married man; Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), soon-to-be-married; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), rebel with a coif; and Jamale (Giséle Aouad), struggling actress.
The salon, Sibelle, is workplace and home away from home for the women. For Layale, manicures and pedicures sometimes take a backseat in favour of meeting her illicit paramour (whose face we never see) in the front seat of her not-so-dependable sedan. Rima washes hair in the back room, and the privacy (often unintentionally heightened by sudden blackouts) leads to a more intimate transaction with a beautiful customer. As anyone who has been in a salon knows, professional stylists can elicit confessionals and apply conditioner at the same time; drying chairs become hot-headed personal shrinks.
The pace is at once hurried and relaxed – appointments and traffic interrupt gossip and grooming; the real world, with all its attendant annoyances, insists on intruding into the quiet warmth of the parlour (the real Beirut also has a chronic noise pollution problem). At one point, Layale throws her lover’s wallet into a drawer, as if she can tuck her whole messy, imperfect love life away with it. The girls spontaneously celebrate Nisrine’s upcoming wedding with dancing and singing and an aluminum-foil wreath Rima throws on Nisrine’s head.
The first half of Caramel is a traditional comedy, although a playful and sophisticated one – the sticky-sweet confection of the title is an epilation tool suitable for Hezbollah; more than once, Layale finds catharsis as her customers flinch. The supporting cast (Sihame Haddad as an old seamstress, Adel Karam as a policeman enamored with Layale) is talented and hilarious, the highlight being Aziza Semaan’s priceless portrayal of an elderly, senile bag lady still looking for love. It is only in the second half of this 95-minute picture that Labaki pulls out the bobby pins, allowing the dramatic events to cascade. As the four women see their dreams fading, they each try – and fail – to invent individual solutions. After a depressed Layale calls from a cheap motel room, the women finally share, laugh and cry together. It’s impossible to resist laughing and crying with them.
Caramel premiered almost a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival, won international acclaim, and has been slowly making its way around the world (next stop: Britain on May 16). Most of the praise lavished on the film has focused on the absence of any political content, a Lebanese film not about war and conflict. I think that such kudos miss the point. Right after the final shot cuts to black, Labaki prints: “To my Beirut.” This film, sugary on the surface, is deeply political. The problems the women face stem directly and inexorably from the constrained, confined social and economic space they are forced to inhabit in a highly patriarchal and militarized society (fair warning: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD).
Layale is a lady leper – no longer a virgin, she is considered damaged goods by bachelors. Her subsequent pursuit of a married man therefore denies easy dismissal as reprehensible or naïve or selfish; from a practical perspective, it is her best shot at happiness. Nisrine faces a similar problem with more catastrophic potential. Also sexually experienced, she must find a way to deceive her husband on her honeymoon or risk losing a life partner, shaming her family and becoming Layale. The lesser of two evils is to become a virgin again, a cosmetic surgical procedure blessedly but gut-wrenchingly depicted with the film’s match cut to the seamstress’s sowing machine.
Rami’s nascent lesbianism is possibly more dangerous to the carefully constructed social fabric of heterosexual union – she must settle for soothing scalps in the back of a salon, in the process sacrificing personal happiness, the joy of intimate and open relationships, and the self-confidence that comes with displaying to the world who you are. Jamale also sacrifices her womanly confidence in the hyper-sexualized, unapologetically discriminating world of commercial television. In one arresting audition scene, as the camera jerks ever closer, Jamale recites banal ad copy for a toothpaste, almost breaking down as the casting agent imperiously issues instructions and destructive criticism.
What Labaki has accomplished is not a Lebanese film without conflict or politics. It is a film laced with politics, damning at its core the covert gender-based oppression of its protagonists while still retaining a magnificent and magnanimous humanity. It is a rare filmmaker who can rebuke without condescension, who can provoke without pity. Caramel is that most delicious of cinematic treats: a devotion picture.
Sukkar Banat (Caramel)
Directed by Nadine Labaki.
With Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel and Giséle Aouad.
95 minutes. Comedy/Drama.