Caramel, Dir. Nadine Labaki, Now Playing
Those of us dying for a decent woman’s film may now—at least temporarily—curtail our pining. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Caramel unlaces the proverbial corset, breathing new life into what has become a disturbingly constricted genre. A good woman’s film (like a good tampon) is ideally made both by and for women. Making a good woman’s film entails posing the eternal question: What do women want? While this question is of course unanswerable, attempts to address it can lead to complicated, sensitive portrayals and gross oversimplifications alike. Labaki’s charming first feature does us some of the justice we deserve. Labaki’s women possess a formidable range of desires, from the lust for a good bikini wax to the forbidden longing for another woman.
Layale (played by Labaki) directs a slipshod beauty parlor in Beirut. An unmarried Christian twenty-something who lives with her parents, she is engaged in an illicit affair with a married man, and hopes in vain that he’ll leave his wife. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), Layale’s partner and (Muslim) friend, has a legitimate (Muslim) fiancé, but fears he will notice she’s no longer a virgin on their wedding night. Divorcee Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is menopausal and youth-obsessed: she competes with teenagers for acting jobs and gets a rush out of faking menstruation with food coloring. Meanwhile, Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the salon handywoman and Lebanese sister to Shane from The L Word, finds she loves ladies but can only wash their hair.
Acts of depilation structure the film. The ongoing process of hair removal provokes a bittersweet combination of constraint and liberation, pain and pleasure. In the protected space of the beauty parlor women are free to let it all hang out—to expose their unwanted fur and stubble, have it ripped away by a sister in the struggle (someone who undergoes the same torture), and be soothed in the aftermath. To document Caramel’s most pivotal waxings and cuttings, Labaki’s camera moves in close, framing brisk hands at work and moist, attentive eyes. Her women feel each other’s pain, literally and figuratively. Labaki’s men are less empathetic. The one male character that wins our hearts (as well as Layale’s) does so by agreeing to have his eyebrows waxed and his moustache shaved off. Submission to depilation emasculates him, leading to a leveling between man and woman otherwise deemed impossible. In contrast, Rima’s love interest, a raven-haired beauty, agrees to part with her long black locks after Rima extols her gorgeous face. Delivered from her hair’s oppressive weight, she skips giddily home, emanating a post-orgasm glow.
In addition to its subtle yet powerful break with hetero-centrism, Caramel capitalizes on the performances of non-professional actors. Labaki, Al Masri and Moukarzel are so at one with their roles that their most minor facial tics become emotional signifiers. Aouad furnishes more of a caricature, but that makes sense, given her character’s palpable desperation. Adding more depth to the film’s exploration of modern femininity is the presence of Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), who has devoted her life to caring for her crazy older sister Lili (Aziza Semaan). Rose believes herself too old for romance, and after entertaining a brief and unexpected possibility for love, resigns herself to spinsterhood. In this chronicle of compromise, there are no unequivocally happy endings.
The best scenes in Caramel feature Layale, Nisrine, Jamale and Rima hamming it up in concert. Each member of the Fab Four has her own unique appeal, but the group’s chemistry is explosive. Insults abound, followed by declarations of love. Layale and Jamale ridicule Nisrine’s bad French en route to the clinic where Nisrine hopes to get herself stitched up (and thus reclaim her virginity); Nisrine, Jamale and Rima comfort Layale after she has been stood up by assuring her the cake she’s baked for her boyfriend’s birthday is utterly disgusting and he wouldn’t want it anyway. Taking the piss is a survival mechanism in these parts, and makes the film damn funny to boot.
Caramel fulfills one of my core desires as a viewer and in life. The film welcomes me into a community of intelligent, witty, conflicted, sexy, mutually supportive women—a luxury, given the current backlash against anything remotely resembling feminism. That such a luxury hails from Lebanon is revealing. What does it suggest that the intricacies of Caramel—the product of a culture our own so often condemns as unerringly sexist—far eclipse the facile preoccupations of the contemporary American chick flick? When the complexity of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is reduced to the saccharine triviality of Bridget Jones’s Diary, I have to ask, “Did I shave my legs for this?”
Sarah Kessler is currently completing her Master's in English at the University of Wisconsin. She will migrate to sunny Los Angeles after her defense.