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Beauty and Beirut: A review of the film Caramel

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Feb 27

Caramel (Sukkar Banat)
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Les Films de Beyrouth, Sunnyland, 2007

Caramel (in Arabic, Sukkar Banat), a first film by Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki, is the story of the life and loves of the women of the beauty salon Si Belle in Beirut. (The title refers to the homemade sugar concoction used in the salon instead of wax, as a depilatory.)

Labaki, who co-wrote Caramel, also stars in it as Layale, a proprietor-worker in Si Belle. Layale is at the beck and call of a married lover, who summons her to midday trysts but forbids her to call him at home. Her friends are facing crises of their own. Co-workers Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) and Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) also have love trouble: Nisrine, who will soon be married, is afraid to tell her fiancé that she’s not a virgin; Rima is attracted to women and doesn’t know what to do about it. Si Belle customer Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is an actor who’s getting older and has yet to succeed beyond commercials and bit parts, and Rose (Sihame Haddad), who has a tailor’s shop nearby, is saddled with the care of her aging, demented sister Lili (Aziza Semaan).

The subject, of course, recalls Steel Magnolias, Herbert Ross’s 1989 film of Robert Harling’s six-character, all-woman play. Caramel is on a smaller scale, taking place over weeks rather than years, but the two films have a crucial perspective in common: They both celebrate the bonds between and among women—and they both decline either to challenge the place of those women in the world, or to examine any political questions facing them.

The women of Caramel take care of each other tenderly. The others console Layale when her lover breaks her heart, and find a surgeon who can more or less restore Nisrine’s lost virginity. But Caramel (like Steel Magnolias, and not surprisingly for stories set in beauty salons) unquestioningly accepts the conventions that root women’s attractiveness in hairstyles, makeup, high heels, and strategic depilation. (In Lebanon, a former French colony that retains French as a second language, the government is constitutionally shared by Christians and Muslims, and women can choose to dress skimpily or not.)

Beyond beauty, both films also exist outside of politics. Steel Magnolias cheerfully ignored the class differences among its protagonists that in real life would have made their bonds less likely, or at least more problematic. In Caramel, there is no trace of the civil war that devastated Lebanon for decades, and no foreshadowing of the 2006 Israeli attack that commenced nine days after shooting was completed.

Yet Caramel, dedicated “a mon Beyrouth”(“to my Beirut”), does succeed in giving us a certain intimacy with the women of the city (if not with its men, or its streets and ambience). In the Arabophobic world we live in, that’s not a trivial virtue.