In a Beirut beauty salon, the lives of five women from different backgrounds interweave as they share, support, confide in and bicker with each other. The “caramel” of the title refers to the candy, which they use as a depilatory. My guess is that it's supposed to be some kind of metaphor for tearing away secrets or something.
Labaki's video for Nancy Ajram's "Akhasmak, Ah"
First, Rima (the spittin’ image of Jerri Blank from Strangers With Candy) is a secret Sapphist, which is primarily conveyed through her enjoyment of washing a woman’s long tresses. Nisrine, a bride-to-be, isn’t a virgin but is marrying a traditional Muslim who expects her to be, so she goes to the doctor to get surgery. Jamale is an aging former television actress whose attempts to seem young (from taping her eyes up to staining maxi pads with red nail polish) come across as so shrilly hysterical that she earns unintentional laughs instead of sympathy as she competes, in vain, against younger, prettier women. Layale (played by the writer/director) is bitchy and snobbish and she stubbornly pursues an affair with a married man, going to amazing lengths to please him, even though he continually blows her off except for their brief romps in her car. Rose is a seamstress who gains the attractions of an dapper, older American whose suits she tailors. He asks her out but she chooses to devote all of her energy and time to her senile sister -- who was a voice to which nails-on-chalkboard is preferable. The message seems to be that women have to turn to each other, not men, no matter how stupidly they behave. And, girl, men have no idea what they go through.
Most critics have viewed the film favorably and nearly all have shrieked in surprise something along the lines of, “A Lebanese Chick Flick!” This amazement at something so quotidian reflects our Western ignorance more than any sort of groundbreaking development. Sure, the media implies homogeneity among all Arabic countries and we’re led to assume that burqa-wearing female directors are probably stoned to death by their families but, in fact, director Nadine Labaki isn’t exactly breaking new ground, even in Lebanon. In fact, she merely joins a field alongside established women directors like Danielle Arbid, Leila Kanaan, Mirna Khayat, Jocelyne Saab and others. Getting excited that the Lebansese have made a “chick flick” is roughly akin to having your mind blown by a musical... made in Mumbai! Don’t get me wrong, Caramel isn’t bad. It just isn’t much of anything. And it never would’ve been viewed as anything but a sub-Steel Magnolia Lifetime movie-type film if not for the ignorance of Eurocentric cinematic tourists with Orientalist joneses.
In fact, even most critics who love the film have noted that it isn’t especially creative or engaging-- their enjoyment hinges almost entirely on its “novel setting” in Beirut. Of course, many films have been set in Beirut and that mundane reality doesn’t intrinsically elevate the material. Would setting Sweet November in Karelia make it good? No -- it just appeals to pretensions of worldliness -- a Lebanese film made with Western, foreign language-lovers in mind. Labaki’s background in music videos serves her well. She sells the easy beauty of her amber-filtered portrayal of the city (filmed by Yves Sehnaoui) in a way that's designed to be both comfortably familiar to western audiences while suitably exotic at the same time. Watching Caramel is sort of like going to a Mexican Resort Hotel, ordering strawberry margaritas from the bar, and being treated to a rendition of “La Bamba” by some local musicians. There's surely nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t exactly demonstrate deep cultural awareness, so don't kid yourself.I’m reminded of when Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi. He said he made it in Spanish because he knew critics and film festivals would ignore it otherwise. Caramel goes further, however, by relying on formulaic non-Hollywood clichés that pretentious foreign film-lovers have come to expect: the bittersweet tone, the magic hour look, just a pinch of local color, kooky characters like the senile old woman who collects parking tickets thinking they’re love letters, safe critiques of the hardships the characters endure, and an avoidance of truly controversial politics. Caramel sticks to gender politics, and doesn't advance them in any way. Sure, a women's picture (as they used to call them before the adoption of the more hideous "chick flick") isn't likely to delve into complicated politics, but the complete absence seems conspicuous. I mean, a mere nine days after shooting ended Israel launched an attack which killed over a thousand Lebanese and displaced over a million.
There’s something interesting about Caramel’s defiant avoidance of showing the bombed out, war-torn image of Beirut the west is always treated to. I've never been to Lebanon (well, besides Lebanon, Missouri), so maybe people really do completely live their lives as if they don't notice their trigger-happy nuclear neighbor to the south. Labaki clearly wants to avoid the embattled image we get in the west. Instead, however, Caramel unabashedly celebrates the familiar stereotype of Lebanon’s bourgeois as vain, consumerist, shopaholic and shallow. I found myself annoyed, ultimately, at all of these unpleasant characters. The improvised dialogue is so dull, vapid and unpleasant that it reminded me of why I cut my own hair and avoid salons. And because there are so many characters, none of them are developed sufficiently -- not that any of their stories hint that there’s anything interesting under the surface. Not surprisingly, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. After all, the message that these women may be of different ages, religions and sexual prejudices but their womanhood unites them (that, and convenience) is the sort of junior high, lofty obviousness that the Academy eats up.
So, lest I sound like I hated this movie, I didn't. I just don't like the critics that championed it and made it out to be more than it is: an occasionally enjoyable, frequently dull, run-of-the-mill film. Like the confection it’s named after, Caramel looks pretty, but is ultimately empty junk food that, instead of melting in your mouth, is used to rip out your short ‘n’ curlies.
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