(2007; director: Nadine Labaki; writers: Nadine Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily; languages: Arabic, French; original title: Sukkar banat سكر بنات; co-production with France).
According to my cursory research, Lebanon boasts one of the strongest cinematic traditions in the Arabic-speaking world (second only to Egypt), with both film-making and cinema attendance being popular pursuits from the early 20th century onwards (Wikipedia has a good overview). As such there are a wealth of films to choose from, from Lebanon’s post-independence golden age (their first contribution to Cannes was Ila Ayn? in 1958) to contemporary films from international prize-winning (female) directors such as Randa Chahal Sabag, Danielle Arbid, and Nadine Labaki. From this abundance of riches it was difficult to choose one for the blog. I was tending towards Bosta (2005), a road movie depicting the clash between tradition and modernity through the fusion of techno with traditional Levantine dance (dabkeh). It was a runaway success in Lebanon and one of few films made after the Lebanese Civil War without international funding. However, in the end I let accessibility make the decision for me, and went with the film that kept catching my eye at the local library. And so…
Caramel is a salty-sweet romantic comedy of the type that sets female friendship front and centre. Despite running an apparently successful beauty salon, 30-year-old Layale (Labaki) still lives with her parents, shares a bedroom with her brother, and sneaks into the bathroom to make clandestine calls to her married lover. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), one of Layale’s employees, is finding it difficult to play the perfect Muslim woman her boyfriend’s family expects, and when marriage looms she realises her non-virginity is also an issue. The salon’s other employee, quiet tomboy Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), seems a little adrift until an extremely attractive client appears on the scene. Frequent client Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) and neighbouring tailor Rosie (Sihame Haddad) give insights into the lives of middle-aged and older women, where age and responsibility clash with romantic notions of beauty, fame and romance.
Caramel is actress Nadine Labaki’s directorial debut, and she leads a cast of largely unprofessional actors who give performances of genuine warmth and verve. It’s attractively filmed, with a deft comedic touch (one of my favourite scenes was the genre-required wedding finale, where upon looking up to catch the tossed bouquet, Layale also catches some fresh bird guano). In many ways the film is a typical romantic comedy, and would easily hold its own with many of the better Hollywood offerings of the sort. The film bubbles with meet-cutes, sexual tension, and a mustachioed policeman’s humorously unrequited desire.
But the heterosexual relationships feel like window-dressing for the film’s main focus – exploring inter-female relations in all their joys and sorrows. It is this that the film’s title connotes. Ostensibly referring to the caramel the salon uses uses for hair-removal (and snacking), caramel is also a metaphor for the film’s core relationships: sweet, indulgent, feminine, and very painful when it rips all your hair out – even though that’s what you asked for. And in contrast to many romantic comedies which set up catty competition between women, most of Caramel‘s inter-female relationships are moving ones of support and solidarity, despite disparities in age or religion, and even at the cost of romantic happiness.
For Labaki, the salon setting is important in facilitating these relationships. She describes it as a place where women can be women together, where women open up and reveal themselves in all their flaws and vulnerability, in the hopes of improvement. This is inevitably true, and yet it seems to me that even (or perhaps especially) within this female sanctum men’s presence is still felt. Women can be women together in their quest to be a certain kind of woman, the woman men want, and women reveal their flaws only to have them fixed or disguised. Many arguments have been made for the inherent radicality of female bonding, and in many ways I agree with them, but this film brought home to me the feminist shades of grey – that female bonding doesn’t necessarily challenge patriarchy. Instead it might just help women to survive patriarchy (which is still better than not surviving it) or at times even shore it up.
So while woman-to-woman support and friendship might rule the day in Caramel, these instances of support are often related to situations dictated by men (or oppressive gender norms). These range from the comparatively innocuous – Rosie finally accepts a makeover from the salon team when she meets a man, and now has a reason to invest in her appearance – to the more extreme: worried that her wedding night will somehow reveal her previous sexual experience, Nisrine brings her friends with her when she visits a clinic to have her ‘hymen’ ‘restored’ (illustrated by the visual metaphor of Rosie sewing). This is obviously something Nisrine needed support with, but also something nobody should feel they have to do (especially as I’m not even sure what a surgeon would actually do as my understanding was that ‘hymens’ don’t actually exist, or at least not in the sense of something that ‘breaks’ and can be ‘restored’).
For me, it is precisely this interplay between inter-female solidarity, romantic comedy tropes, and persistent patriarchal interference that makes the film interesting. Not only is it a gentle antidote to more saccharine treatments of girl power and heterosexual fulfillment (a touch of salt in the caramel, if you will), it also felt evocative of the many facets I associate with Lebanon, and particularly Beirut. The Beirut we meet in Caramel is still in some ways ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ – stylish, bohemian, indulgent, and cosmopolitan. Women are economically and socially independent, men wear hats and tailored suits, and everyone seems to speak a mixture of Arabic, French and English. Veins of sensuality and sexual promise abound, Rima’s homosexuality (while not discussed) appears to be tacitly supported by her friends, and inter-religious friendships cause no friction. And yet…
… and yet a soldier (or heavily armed policeman?) wonders what Nisrine and her boyfriend are doing in a parked car together, forcing them to get engaged. And Layale cannot get a hotel room for her and her lover without evidence of marriage. The clash between desire and authority, between expectation and surprisingly rigid reality, spoke volumes about life as a woman in contemporary Beirut – and more than a simple portrait of oppression or liberation would. In Labaki’s words:
“It started with something I used to feel and am feeling sometimes, this contradiction between [the fact that] I live in a country that is very modern and exposed to Western culture, and at the same time I’m confused between this culture and the weight of tradition, religion, education and there’s always a lot of self-censorship, self-control. I’m a little bit lost between these two things, and I don’t know who I am exactly. I looked around me and felt that all women around me were feeling the same thing.” And: “You are confused: Are you this free woman who’s doing what she wants, or are you a more conservative woman? You are searching for your identity.”
This confusion and search for identity plays out most obviously in Rima’s story, or rather that of her gorgeous client. Described by Labaki as “the perfect example of a perfect woman,” she is nevertheless happy to embrace Rima’s gentle (and sweetly sensual) nudges into a more daring lesbian
Given the amount of armed conflict Lebanon has seen, war is conspicuous in its absence in Caramel. But I can understand the desire to paint a warmer and more dynamic picture of one’s country, especially at a time when war seemed to be a demon of the past. This is not necessarily just escapism – war can easily come to define a country, laying foundations for future violence or international disinterest. Labaki herself felt an initial conflict around the film’s ‘light’ tone and subject matter:
“[The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War] started exactly a week after we finished shooting. It was very surprising. We thought the war was behind us, and we hadn’t imagined that one day we’d be at war again. It was very hard for us, because we had just made a film that talked about life, love, colorful women, while our country was at war. As a filmmaker, you feel like you have a mission, you want to do something for your country. We had a lot of doubts about what the film said, but now I know that it was my mission after all: This is my country, not the clichéd image that people have in their heads of a country at war. It has a message of hope.
As far as I’m concerned, Labaki has achieved her mission. Caramel was a fun, sweet film that provided a glimpse into the positive and the negative aspects of being a woman in Lebanon, and showed up the beautiful Beirut in all its cosmopolitan glory.