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A surprisingly easy-to-take romantic comedy-drama, the 2007 French/Lebanese film CARAMEL (aka "Sukkar banat") benefits from a realistic setting (downtown Beirut), familiar yet distinctive characters, and a story that ambles its way along much like real life. There's no buildup to a climactic event and not everything is neatly tied together at the end, yet the film is richly rewarding and I felt no lack of closure at the fadeout.
Most of the action takes place in a dingy beauty salon run by three young women with various romantic aspirations. Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) looks forward to her impending marriage, but the fear of her new husband's reaction to the fact that she isn't a virgin leads her to consider hyman restoration surgery. (This was a new one on me--maybe I need to get out more.) The lovely Layale (director Nadine Labaki) is having a dead-end affair with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife and child, while oblivious to the ardent attentions of a handsome motorcycle cop who keeps pulling her over for minor offenses because he's crazy about her.
Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is a boyish-looking lesbian whose main joy in life is tenderly washing and styling the long, luxurious hair of a beautiful woman she loves from afar. A fourth member of the group, frequent customer Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), is a down-on-her-luck actress whose advancing age is making it harder to compete with younger women for penny-ante jobs, yet she gamely continues to struggle despite this and an absent husband who'd rather be at the beach with his girlfriend.
Across the street, their old-maid friend Rose (Sihame Haddad) toils in a tailor shop while caring for her Alzheimer-addled mother Lili (Aziza Semaan). Rose is resigned to let life pass her by until one day a nice old gentleman comes in for alterations and a tentative romance begins to bud. But the aggressively nutty Lili's need for constant supervision stands in their way.
Lili is my favorite character--she's always picking up paper on the street, and when Rose locks her upstairs, she hangs a basket out the window and directs passersby to deposit certain pieces of paper in it. Her neverending stream of non-sequiturs is often hilarious ("There are people expecting me to dinner! The plane is about to take off!" she squawks while banging on her locked door. "It's getting dark! I'm going to tell the neighbors! They'll eat you alive!")
The title refers to something else that I was previously unaware of, which is the use of freshly-cooked caramel as a hair-removal device. After expressing curiosity about her lover's wife, Layale is shocked to find that her coworkers have invited the mystery woman in for the full treatment. Spitefully making the process as painful as possible at first, Layale is conflicted when she finds the unsuspecting "other woman" to be sweet and likable. As for the caramel, which Layale sensuously savors before its application, I'm guessing the symbolism here is that life can be both painful and sweet. Sounds good, anyway.
Skillfully directed by Labaki (who co-scripted with Rodney El Haddad and the dubiously-named Jihad Hojeily) and very attractively photographed, CARAMEL is a laidback slice-of-life story that leisurely explores the lives of its characters, whose modern sensibilities are often at odds with the strict traditions that surround them. The entire cast is uniformly excellent. Khaled Mouzannar's indigenous-sounding musical score adds to the atmosphere and only once lapses into mawkishness, during the scene in which Rose tentatively makes herself up for a date with the elderly gentleman while Lili screams curses at her from the other room.
At the end, one storyline is semi-resolved, one shows the possibility of a happy ending later on (or maybe not), and others simply end up back where they started with the characters either surrendering to their lot in life or continuing to yearn for more. It's nice that all of these opportunities for maudlin melodrama are handled with such a light touch and often allowed to be both moving and humorous at the same time. There's a scene at a wedding in which Jamale claims she's having her period in order to cut into line for the bathroom, then cleverly leaves wads of red-dyed toilet paper in the wastebasket to verify her story to the other guests. Like the rest of CARAMEL, Jamale's character is both wistful and funny, sad yet somehow quietly indomitable, and never lapses into bathos.
Added: Monday, August 04, 2008
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