Sweet Treat

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Running Time 95 minutes
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Written by Rodney El Haddad and Jihad Hojeily
Starring Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Jamale Tarabay

“Lots of volume,” barks a customer in the Si Belle Salon, the beauty parlor in Caramel, “like a fluffy cat.” She’s talking about her hair, but I guess she might as well mean every other aspect of her newly emerging life in postwar Beirut. Proving, I guess, that women are the same everywhere, which is the point of the film itself. Before Lebanon was reduced to rubble, Beirut was one of the world’s most beautiful cities, I am told. Challenged but undaunted, the proud and resourceful Lebanese people are now working hard to put the pieces back together, and Caramel, director Nadine Labaki’s semiautobiographical film, shows how far they’ve progressed, at least in the social microcosm of a hairdressing salon.

These are the women you meet everywhere, preparing for weddings, birthdays and the deaths of hateful in-laws with the same kind of restorative value they only get from pedicures and permanent waves. Forget about war and the devastation of the past. For the five central characters of different ages, bank accounts and social backgrounds, the salon is the colorful and sensual meeting place where they share their liberated obsessions with men, sex and motherhood, between haircuts and manicures. The element that bonds them is the hot, melted sugar that waxes their legs with caramel. With feet apart, bridging a gap between the hypocrisy of their own culture’s system of oppression and the open, free and controversial emancipation of the postwar West, the women of modern Beirut struggle with anxiety, guilt and the social constraints of an order resistant to change. But in the privacy and nonjudgmental comfort of the salon, they feel safe. The caramel keeps them honest.

Layale, the owner of the shop (played by the director), is a devout Christian who still lives with her parents, hiding a secret love affair with a married man, which is considered taboo in her religion. Nisrine is a spirited Muslim whose forthcoming marriage poses a problem: How can she break the news to the groom that she is not a virgin? Rima is tormented by the fact that she’s a lesbian. Jamale is a flashy, fading actress with garish makeup to hide her lines, so terrified of growing old that she pretends to suffer from irregular periods so nobody will know she’s already menopausal. (I guess Botox hasn’t made it to Beirut yet.) And Rose is the lonely neighbor, a seamstress who sacrifices the chance for a life of her own to take care of her senile sister. From the crazy old woman who steals parking tickets and pretends they’re love letters, to the shy, handsome policeman who keeps giving Layale the tickets to get to know her better, Nadine Labaki draws a canvas of contemporary life in Beirut that is both intimate and encompassing. The ensemble cast generates enormous wit and warmth, and the film personifies the attitudes of a new generation of Lebanese filmmakers who look beyond war and politics to embrace the eternal truths of love, friendship and passion. When all else fails, they can always heat up the caramel.