A romantic comedy set in Beirut, Caramel is a decadent piece of foreign cinema that significantly grows on you as you start to feel its invigorating warmth. Thanks to the wonderful ensemble of stories from Lebanese women across generations, it never promises you their “happy ending”, but it teases just enough to satisfy that craving. Kind of like that sweet confection, but here it’s actually a use of labor as well as a metaphor for their lives.
In this part of the world, caramel in its just-cooked form, is also a paste used for waxing as part of a beauty routine. It’s so good, you have to at least taste it before you get on to your client, right? Directed by Nadine Labaki, the film follows a group of four women, most of whom work at a beauty salon, the ‘si Belle,’ which has a near collapsed letter on its sign. Layale (Labaki) runs the salon, juggling her relationship with a married man, while also unaware that the neighborhood policeman, Youssef (a handsome Adel Karam), can’t help but admire her from afar, even after egging her on about illegal parking on the regular.
Not only does Caramel highlight the personal sides of love, it takes part in their own societal implications and studies how this deeply affects its characters. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Massri) is engaged to a nice enough man, one who is foolish in front of the law, but loves her nonetheless. It’s revealed she has a secret that could potentially invalidate the honor of her marriage, so she confides in the other women and addresses it the best she can.
Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is a little more distant to the woes the other women talk about. She’d be on the side snacking while the others dish on relationships. But she finds herself in an unspoken allurement with Siham (Fatmeh Safa), a recurring client. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is a mother of teens, struggling with her own imperfection of divorcee life and coming to grips with aging as a part-time ad model.
Caramel is a remarkable treasure of a film from Lebanon, that puts such a pointed focus on the lives of women and their personal ventures that entail trust from us. It has a warm, keen sense of understanding and uses that as its connective tissue across relations. As it’s a lush, painted picture of life, it twirls through the lives of other generations as well.
Next door lives Rose, a 65-year-old seamstress, who may have a curiosity toward a new client all the while caring for Lili, a slightly older woman with dementia who has a niche for collecting parking tickets (ones she later declares are long lost letters from a lover). As much as Rose would love to go out on the town and welcome new buoyancy into her life, she’s a little on the pensive side about where her life is headed.
There’s much to love about Caramel, from its often sunbathed color palette, to the lovely acting. Something even more ravishing than its natural humor is its carefully entrancing soundtrack by Khaled Mouzanar. With us at every corner, Mouzanar’s sound is delicate when it needs to be and moves with the film’s engaging sequences.
When Layale is secretly on the phone with her lover, it’s Youssef who gazes from across the street, sitting with his coffee and playing along with a nonexistent conversation he wishes he had with her. Set along a sweet, curious score, the moment becomes a faded fantasy to us and just like that, Caramel reminisces and yearns just as we do. There’s nothing quite like these smaller, framed existences in the film. The way the film then takes them and simmers in it is just expert. Desires are expressed and Labaki’s film is an open book to these and more.
All these little stories of vanity, family, affection, identity, admiration, and age are wrapped within the feminine perspective, guiding the way to a tender third act satisfaction. Labaki’s direction bends all these tribulations of generational gaps, and lets them perform together. What comes of all this is a heartwarming, enlightened, and stylish class of cinema that looks within the personal and social experiences. It also houses a diverse way of thinking, both in living to a certain tradition and living among a society’s existence.
Labaki, who has a writing credit on the film, makes Caramel such a nourishing experience, introducing love, self care, doubt, femininity, family, and friendship in such a genuine way. As all of the women interact, there’s a solace it weaves in, much like spending time with our own mothers and friends. Caramel does an excellent job of celebrating the old with the new, using small defeats as a prop for empowerment, and putting heart into our lives again. So yes, one could say this is a very sweet delight of a film.