The film group film this month was Caramel. I had presented it in 2011 at the Lexi cinema to a general audience at the U3A matinée. They loved the film. On release in 2007 the critics and reviewers were in the majority very positive and it was distributed internationally. I was surprised by the variety of responses of the film group this month.
– It represents well the of diversity of Lebanese society.
– Lebanese Steel Magnolia
– Have there been any changes in women’s oppression in the last 10 years?
– Waiting but nothing happens
In the subsequent discussion however the details of the lives of the women, society pressures and their solidarity and friendship were commented on.
I find it difficult to be objective about the film as I lived in Beirut in my formative years and understand Arabic. I appreciate its realism and enjoy its very special humour.
It has been described as a chick flick, a romantic comedy, but under the light-hearted surface lies an acute observation of the difficulties of women’s lives, their solidarity and resilience, the way they confront pressures with wry humour.
The title sequences set the mood by showing the preparation of the mixture of sugar and lemon that makes the caramel. The sweet and sour concoction can be eaten but is painful when used as a depilatory paste. The action takes place mainly in a beauty salon called ‘si Belle’ in a modest part of Beirut. The B letter is seen hanging lopsided on the facade. The clientele and the beauticians are ordinary people.
The film deals with two groups of women and their problems. The beauticians are young. Love and relationships are the driving emotional force. For the other group it is ageing that is the main issue.
Layale (writer/director Labaki) is Christian. She is the owner of the modest salon. She lives in a small flat with no privacy. An affair with a married man dictates her behaviour. She leaves her clients at the sound of a car horn or a phone call to make love in his car parked in a waste ground. To celebrate his birthday she has to search for a hotel but her booking is only accepted in a dingy one that prostitutes use. She spends the day cleaning and decorating the room but the lover does not appear. Her friends come to the rescue and they enjoy the birthday cake together.
Nisrine is Moslem. She is engaged and soon to be married with a conventional Moslem man. She is welcomed by his big traditional family. Before her visit she has to transform her appearance from a modern dressed young woman to an all concealed body. On the eve of her wedding, in a touching mother/daughter talk she is given advice on sex in veiled terms: “don’t be shy…. you will get used it”. But Nisrine is not a virgin.
The third worker in the Salon is Rima. She takes care of technical problems and duties that involve physical strength. In erotic hair washing scenes it is obvious that she fancies her repressed client with beautiful long black hair who comes back a few times and finally has a liberating haircut. Both Nisrine and Layale recognise that Rima is lesbian without actually expressing it.
The friendship of this group is expressed through their acting and especially the way they look at each other in an understanding way without words.They also have supporting roles in each other’s lives. Layale is tricked into visiting the wife and home of her lover. This will lead to her giving up on him. Here we see the class difference between the working women of the Salon and the more affluent client. Nisrine in a hilarious scene where she pretends being French is accompanied to the clinic where she is to have her hymen restored. Rima is forced to accept a beautification session to attend Nisrine’s wedding celebrations.
The three other main characters raise the issues of the effect of ageing on women. Jamale, a divorced mother of two is menopausal. Her ex-husband neglects his children in favour of his new partner. An over-the-top performance recalls some of Mike Leigh’s middle-aged women characters. Her work as an actor depends on her looks. She makes a big fuss about her hairstyle at the Salon. At an audition for a commercial she fakes a blood stain on her dress to indicate that she still has periods. Also in the presence of young women in the toilet queue at Nisrine’s wedding she indicates that she is menstruating. (I think it is the only film scene where menstrual blood is mentioned.)
Rose the older seamstress lives and works next door to the Salon. She is called Auntie by the beauticians as is the custom in Lebanon. She is quite close to the three women. She refuses the offer of free hairdressing until a French man who came for some alterations to a suit asks her out. But the responsibility of looking after her dementing older sister makes her abandon all hope of escape.
Lilly lives in a past love relationship and is part of the street life. She collects bits of paper, and car parking tickets as billets doux. In a scene she over makes up her face in mockery of her sister getting ready to meet her date. In her dementia she is very manipulative, she devises effective ways to prevent her sister from meeting the French client. Both Rose and Lilly are devout Christians.
The men are next to insignificant. The married lover is not seen at all. The local traffic policeman in love with Layala, initially teased by the young beauticians, gets together with her at Nisrine’s wedding. The older Frenchman admirer of Rose, the damaged shop sign of the salon and the use of French in the most hilarious scenes satirise the French speaking of some of the middle classes of Beirut.
Nisrine’s wedding is the occasion of a joyous Lebanese celebration in the open background of the mountains. Rima’s poem, singing, dancing, and Layala with her policeman gives us the feel good effect. But the slight narrative of this slice of life film leaves us with many questions on the fate of these working women who live in Beirut and show resilience in coping with the many restrictions they have to face in their lives.
The film ends with a long shot of Rose and Lilly walking away down the street. A touching end where we see Rose picks up precious bits of paper from the floor and gives them for Lilly to cherish. .