Things To Do

Caramel (PG) ***

Actor-director Nadine Labaki and friends are in various stages of romantic and personal discovery.
Actor-director Nadine Labaki and friends are in various stages of romantic and personal discovery.

By Craig Outhier

Beauty might be tyranny, but it provides an excellent excuse to bond. After all, how many painful secrets have been spilled over perms?

Quite a few, if one takes certain movies at face value. The Queen Latifah comedy Beauty Shop, Tonie Marshall’s The Venus Beauty Institute and the celebrated documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul all enshrine the beauty parlor as a hearth of support and empowerment.

Along these same lines is Caramel, a wistful tale of friendship and solidarity from Lebanese actress and first-time director Nadine Labaki. Set in Beirut, the movie profiles five female friends in various stages of romantic and personal discovery. Labaki plays the traffic-stopper of the bunch: Layale, an exotic, slender 30-something whose success as a beautician and businesswoman doesn’t stop her from dropping her scissors (and her self-respect) whenever her married lover snaps his fingers.

Layale’s employees have troubles of their own. Nismine (Yasmine Elmasri) is due to be married but fears what her traditional Muslim fiance will do when her lack of virginity will become plain. Rima (Joanna Moukarzei), with her Melissa Etheridge-style haircut and complementary sexual preferences, feels isolated and alone. (Moukarzei’s bashful look of longing when she sees a pretty girl on the bus is one of the movie’s truest images.)

Layale’s most loyal customer is Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a fading TV actress and divorced mother who pathetically clings to the last, wrinkled remnants of her youth. Conversely, youth is but a cold, dead memory for Rose (Sihame Haddad), a seamstress who spends every waking minute caring for her crazy crone of a sister (Aziza Semaan, hilariously daft).

Caramel is about universal things — vanity, heartache, sisterhood — but it’s also about stealing moments of intimacy. When a dapper old gent insists that Rose re-hem his pants, it’s pretty much foreplay. (And as hot a scene you’ll ever see between two 70-year-olds.)

Lebanon’s official but non-nominated submission for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars, Caramel is not terribly focused. One gets the sense that Labaki, along with a pair of co-screenwriters, blunt their socio-political skewers a bit, perhaps to appease less progressive elements back home. Still, the performances are ripe and charming, and the movie scores credibility points for the simple fact that the characters don’t necessarily realize their fantasies.