Objects of Beauty
By Joanne Nucho

Caramel
Dir. Nadine Labaki, Lebanon, Roadside Attractions

Caramel, the directing debut of Lebanese actress/music video director Nadine Labaki, concerns five women who frequent a beauty salon in Beirut, their lives unfolding onscreen in between hair stylings and waxings (the latter accomplished with the sticky, burnt-sugar mixture for which the film is named). Each of the women is meant to represent the various challenges of being a “modern” Middle Eastern woman. I put the word “modern” in quotations not to suggest an incongruence between modernity and the middle east, but rather to note that the very notion of a “modern woman” is a construction that has a history about as long as the formulation of the modern nation-state. This construction encourages women to believe that they must simultaneously balance some amorphous notion of tradition based on a myth of an authentic past with a construction of a progressive “modern,” which could include definitions of women’s work, both in and outside of the home, and, increasingly, a globalized notion of beauty. So, while Caramel is essentially a lighthearted romantic comedy, a Lebanese Sex in the City if you will, minus the nudity or raunch, it’s most striking for how Labaki depicts the constant negotiation of the “modern” women, illustrating the ways in which people can resist the roles imposed on them, and the limits of that resistance.

Though Labaki attempts to incorporate both Christian and Muslim women into Caramel (Lebanon is a something of an anomaly in that it has a high Christian population), the film is ultimately more interested in looking at a particularly Lebanese middle class. Labaki should not be faulted for this choice, as it would have been difficult for this entertainment to transgress the class boundaries that also deeply divide Lebanon (and the U.S.). Nevertheless, through the lives of Labaki’s characters, the viewer is privy to many different kinds of Beruiti stories: Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) opts for hymen reconstructive surgery rather than telling her fiancé that she is no longer a virgin; Jamale (Gisele Aoud) is an aging actress obsessed with her appearance and terrified of growing older; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is secretly attracted to women; and Rose (Siham Haddad) is a neighbor who has spent her entire life caring for her insane older sister. Finally, Layale, the owner of the salon (played by Labaki herself), still lives with her parents while having an affair with a married man.

While each of the characters negotiates her place within the ideal “modern woman” image that she constantly falls short of being, the film also illustrates the particular problems facing both men and women in Beirut when it comes to privacy. Most Lebanese live with their parents until they are married, and because of the economic difficulties facing the country, getting married is often postponed due to the inability of the couple to afford renting a place on their own. The result is that people live with their families well into their late twenties or longer, with the added expectation that they remain chaste until marriage—not only is it a parental expectation, it is a legal one as well. When Nisrine and her fiancé sit in his car chatting late one night, a policeman approaches and asks if they are married. When he finds out they aren’t, he threatens to arrest them for “indecent” behavior. In another scene, Layale looks for a hotel room to meet her lover in secret. Because she cannot prove that she is married, she is barred from getting a room at any decent hotel. In one hotel, she gives the concierge a false name, hoping to dodge any questions, but he recognizes the name and starts questioning her about her extended family. The claustrophobia of Beirut, the lack of privacy in the network of extended families that make up the city, make it impossible to do anything in secret, another barrier to having freedom over one’s sexual practice. Dating is an entirely different concept when it is likely that one shares a room with one’s little brother (as Layale does).

In the end, there are no radical changes within the lives of these women—no clearly dramatic events, and therefore no clear resolutions. Presumably, the women will carry on much as they always had, the film being only a brief glimpse into their lives. Yet, despite its ethnographic accuracy and refreshing open-endedness, Caramel is still a traditional movie, and an ultimately pleasing “chick flick” at that, warm and charming. Though Caramel manages to steer clear of directly addressing the war, its specter haunts the film: the shabby exterior of the salon and the added economic restrictions on space and privacy provide the backdrop for many of the issues the women face. At the same time this portrait is a hopeful one, and in some ways it’s directed at people outside of Lebanon as well as those within, for whom everyday life goes on despite decades of conflict and turmoil.

Caramel wrapped shooting a week before the war of 2006 erupted in Lebanon. It seems bitterly ironic that a filmmaker so insistent on the possibility of a Lebanese film that avoided direct discussion of the wars of the Eighties and Nineties would then be faced with the reality of yet another conflict. In an interview, Labaki expressed her ambivalence about her own film during those first few months of the war, when she was editing in Paris, wondering if it was possible to escape war, and even feeling some guilt about portraying a topic that seemed outside of it. Eventually, she came to understand Caramel as “another way of surviving the war, of getting over it, of winning it and of getting revenge. It marks my revolt and my commitment.” As with the work of all artists working in difficult conditions, this film is a form of resistance, not just surviving but also living, creating, and dreaming.