Nadine Labaki's Film "Caramel"

Rules of the Game beyond the Civil War

The Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's tragicomedy "Caramel" deals with the everyday lives and desires of five women. In the process, she exposes a society in which beauty and virility are the main currency. Fritz Göttler has seen the film

Nadine Labaki (Photo: Ursula Düren, dpa)
Caramel is Nadine Labaki's first feature film. It tells of women whose life centres on a hairdressing salon

​​An elderly gentleman wearing trousers much too short for him, like those we haven't seen since Monsieur Hulot, wanders through the streets of Beirut. This is one of the many tender and melancholy scenes in the film – and perhaps its most beautiful. In this case, the unusual pant style is a sign of love. Over the past few days, the man has made repeated visits to a female tailor in whom he has fallen in love in order to have his pants shortened yet again. The Lubitsch touch, Lebanese style!

Another love story has as its main setting a junkyard on the edge of the city. The man is married, but continuously promises his young lover that he will finally get a divorce. It quickly becomes clear, however, that he has no such intention.

Layale, the young woman, remains hopeful. Her afternoon trysts require her to sneak out early from the small beauty salon that she runs together with her friends. The salon bears the name "Si Belle." The "B" in the neon sign has become unhinged and hangs droopingly like a bosom over the door.

Wit and composure

Nadine Labaki plays Layale, she is also the director of the film, and worked on the screenplay. "Caramel" is her first feature film. She previously mastered her trade making numerous music videos. With wit and composure, she tells the story of a group of women whose lives are, for the most part, spent in Salon Si Belle, in a city where different religious and cultural communities must live together, and where the French influence, stemming back to colonial times, is still quite virulent.

The busy Layale spends each evening with her large family. Of course, the women sitting in front of the television get on her nerves, but she feels secure in the kitchen in their loud and gregarious company.

The mysteries of a beauty salon

The film clearly stands in the international soap opera tradition – part charming, sometimes irritatingly garish. The dependence on this genre is a result of the war that Labaki experienced during her childhood in the eighties. "I had to spend most of the time at home," she recounts. "We couldn't go out, couldn't go to school. I watched and learned about the world through television. The TV was my classroom. Egyptian films, American films, French films. Idiotic talk shows and idiotic TV series. I knew everything about Dallas and Dynasty."

The film is enveloped in a magical Mediterranean light that is both rich and subdued at the same time. The décor, costumes, and the make-up seem to come from a fashion magazine or the Hollywood melodramas of the fifties and sixties. However, the casual manner with which the women move about in their salon and the lack of inhibition with which they devote themselves to their bodies and physical needs cannot hide the rigidity of the rules that govern society outside. The salon is a zone of security, yet the happiness created here must be paid for someday.

​​Lovers' tryst under suspicion of prostitution

The women playing in the film are not professional actresses. They are friends of Labaki and often improvise their lines and gestures. The way in which Labaki gently and affectionately directs from among them is reminiscent of Renoir and his "La Règle du jeu."

One of the women dreams of a career in television and gets dressed up to the hilt for an audition. Another sees happiness in marriage, but as she enters into marriage no longer a virgin, she has her hymen operated upon at the hospital.

As Layale and her lover plan to spend the night together and try to book a room at a hotel, they have to run a demeaning gauntlet. Every porter, no matter how dilapidated the premises, demands to see proof that the guests are married. The lovers' tryst is suspected of being prostitution.

Labaki reveals the mechanisms of a society in which beauty and virility are the true currency. A dapper policeman on the beat is secretly in love with Layale and one day bravely enters the salon. The gait that is otherwise reserved for the final showdown in Westerns here ends in a chair in front of a mirror. And behind the curtain, the caramel is being heated up – that sticky mixture used to forcibly remove unsightly hair.

Fritz Göttler

© Süddeutsche Zeitung /Qantara.de 2008

This article appeared on 3 April 2008 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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