For some obscure reason, there are very few women filmmakers out there in comparison to men, and even fewer whose work is worth mentioning. Needless to say that someone as striking, talented and intelligent as Nadine Labaki only comes our way once in a million years and Julie Delpy is the only one at the moment who can stand next to her. With unbelievable beauty, wit, humour and genuine warmth, she makes each and every one of her projects stand out for its authenticity and dreamy realism. Caramel is perhaps one of Labaki’s funniest films, telling a very affectionate story, taking part in the real world, but escaping every time it gets the chance to a more romantic, idealistic and loving place that can, at times, co-exist with sadness and heartbreak.
In fact emotions never stay the same in Caramel for more than a few seconds. Even in the same scene, abandonment can co-exist with companionship. Beautiful friendship with sadness and love with rejection. The audience is in constant need of smiling and shedding a tear. Funny lines keep coming, but then again disappointment and wasted dreams seem to be what life is made of. Overall, this is the real world, in pastel colours, with a positive note, but without ever becoming naïve or colour-blind.
The story is simple and seemingly fuss-free, however it’s set in Beirut, which admittedly makes the premise slightly fresher and more interesting. Five Lebanese women who run a beauty salon form unhappy relationships, face growing older, deal with outdated traditions and even come out of the closet, in the only ways they can, while acting in a closed-off, narrow-minded and old-fashioned society. The restrictions that come with religion, the traditional society in which the different stories take place and of course the war that works as the narrative’s backdrop, act as perhaps the only antagonists in the film. It’s interesting to note that none of the characters go against any of the women, or are even directly preventing them from achieving their goals. The only force they need to neutralise is that of their society, their religion and their time.
Caramel is an all-female film. It’s made by women, acted by women, things are shown primarily from a female perspective and all sub-stories have a lot to do with the pressure that only women are known to feel in this kind of conventional society. Nadine Labaki co-writes and directs a non-professional female cast, including Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad and Sihame Haddad, who do a remarkable job keeping their stories true-to-life and don’t come across phoney or blown up in any way.
Very little needs to be said about the co-writer (alongside Rodney El Haddad and Jihad Hojeily) and director herself. Nadine Labaki takes on in Caramel the lead role of Layale and offers a highly credible, warm and emotional performance, filled with humour and compassion. She is incredibly beautiful, which also helps her get across most effectively one of the main messages that a film without someone as stunning as her in the main role would have never managed to establish: The fact that everything becomes harder for women in yet another society that expects them to look good, have little mind of their own and somehow, never get old, if they don’t want to be replaced and, ultimately, forgotten.