I saw the movie Caramel (Arabic: Sukkar banat (2007)) a long time ago, but I still needed way too much time to find words in which I would represent it to others in an honorable way. In the end, I didn’t find them. I can only assume that admirers of rainy days, gentle melancholic movies and oriental music won’t look for more reasons.
Beirut, caramel and women: watching Lebanese cinema
** spoiler alert **
Caramel was directed by Nadine Labaki from Lebanon. She dedicated the movie to women and their everyday life in Beirut. The plot is presented through the lives and dreams of employees and customers of a local beauty salon. It’s smooth and flows without unnecessary words, followed by the beautiful soundtrack of Khaled Mouzanar. It’s up to the viewers to read from the ambient, body language, facial expressions and the silence.
Nadine doesn’t mention the war at all, which is something we almost expect from Middle Eastern artists. Without pretentiousness and pathetic, this is simply – a movie about women, female friendship and warmth of human relationships below the chaos and clashes.
Lebanon is not just burning buildings and people crying in the street. When you say Lebanon, especially to foreigners, that’s the first thing they think of. For me, Lebanon is about other things … we live love stories like any other person in any country all over the world. That’s why I wanted to talk about an issue that has no relation to the war and which shows a new picture of Lebanon. I wanted to show its’ people with imagination, who love life, people with warmth, people with a sense of humor”, explains Nadine.
Only two of the actresses are actual actresses, while others never had any experience in that area. Nadine insisted on that, literally seeking out for candidates on the street for a year. She intended to create a movie so real where viewers can recognize themselves.
Why caramel? Hot caramel is a waxing tool in an Arab world and the beauty salon. But the history of its usage goes way back in antic time. As Nadine says, ”it’s a sugar that can be sweet, but it can also burn. It’s a symbol of our eternal reaching for the beauty that makes us suffer often” (those who tried the method out know what she is talking about). The location itself – a beauty salon – has a meaning too: for Nadine, it is a place of strong mutual female bond. A woman sees a woman naked, with her natural flaws. Women tell each other secrets, it’s a place of trust, hopes, and secrets behind closed doors and curtains.
Nadine Labaki is the main actress in her own movie. She plays the role of Layale, the owner of ”Si belle” beauty salon. She is a Christian and expected to marry and settle in her 30’s. Instead, she has a secret affair with a married man. At the same time, she is rejecting a dear local policeman who is hopelessly in love with her – his attempts to write her a traffic ticket (”Madam, you’d look even more beautiful with the seat belt on”) are just adorable in their clumsiness.
We see the female competition in the market of men: meeting and relationship between the lover and a wife who doesn’t know what’s going on behind her back. These women could have been great friends in real life. Layaline hopes he will leave his wife but once seeing her, she realizes it would never happen. His wife is ”the perfect wife” and great marriage material. On the other side, 30-year-old Layale lives at her parents’ and works in a salon. Torn between her morals and lust for love, powerless and jealous, she causes physical pain to his wife. And then, in the next moment, she is playing with their daughter realizing that things she wants – love and family – he already has.
Her best friend Nisrine also works in the salon. She is a Muslim, afraid of what would her soon to be husband do if he found out she is not a virgin. On her birthday, her friends gift her with a plastic operation of the hymen. This cult of virginity is a historical problem of social condemnation of women as Madonnas and whores through the prism of their ”innocence”. It’s bolded by even more morbid phenomena: possibility of buying the hymen, covering up (and capitalizing) the problem instead of facing it. Even in the ”developed” capitalist world with an ongoing renaissance of traditional values and rediscovering of innocence & youth in a decadent world, we see more and more women waiting in line for a ”new beginning” and redemption. One of them is Nisrine who wants to preserve her honor and reputation. Unfortunately, in some countries, this profitable business is literally saving women’s lives.
Rima is also a colleague and a friend. She is hiding her homosexuality and the fact she’s in love with the salon visiter who is discretely flirting with her. In the beginning, it seems like Rima is not sure of her feelings. We can see this in a scene where she is looking at the girl on the bus, but when she sits next to her, Rima moves away. As if she feels she is doing something wrong. Rina is aware of weird looks she’s getting from around. When she doesn’t show interest in her admirer, the local ”Johnny Bravo”, her colleague suspiciously concludes: ”You never like anyone!”. So, she keeps her feelings to herself, falling in a silent relationship with the visitor of the salon. When she comes for a beauty treatment, the act of hair washing becomes an erotic ritual. Finally, it becomes an act of transformation at the moment when Rima cuts her hair.
Jamale on the other side, spends most of her time in the salon, fighting the biological clock. Those attempts are sometimes comical and sometimes desperate. She is persistent in her auditions for commercials where often she runs in young girls, realizing that in a cruel world of film and fashion industry her expiry date is over. Jamale’s is a story about frustrations caused in women by the societal obsession with youth and youth-like beauty. We see it in her bitter-comical use of glue tape under the hair to pull the skin, as well as in damaged family relations. She spends her evening on a running track while her kids are killing time in front of the TV, waiting for their father to pick them up. When the father calls, she pretends she can’t talk because she is preparing dinner. Truth is, he doesn’t care anyway. He only called to say he can’t pick up the kids because he is taking his new girlfriend out to the movie. Her attempts to please demands of society takes her battles to too many frontlines. Exhausted, she is losing them all.
Finally, the bitter-sweet scenes with an elderly neighbor Rose, who dedicated her life nursing her sister Lili with dementia. Lili walks around the neighborhood collecting parking tickets, thinking they are love letters from her fiance. Rose owns a sewing salon across the street from Nadia’s and she falls in love with an old school gentleman who brings her his clothing for repair. He is coming on to her, but despite liking him back, she struggles with the dilemma: is there hope for her to experience her first, and probably last, love at that age? Or she has nothing left but to return to her regular every day, knowing she can’t leave her sick sister.
Men in this movie are just addition and the problems women face are everlasting: uncertainty of youth and beauty, sexuality, marriage, aging, clash of old and new values… Yet, they are not as hopeless as they are in Western prejudices. One viewer commented on the importance of the movie and expressing authentic Lebanese point of view in their language:
”You know it would have been received a lot easier and would not have received so much attention had it not been in our Lebanese Arabic. That’s my opinion, like for example in a Western language, the topic is talked about and passes and you are not surprised. But when it is in our Lebanese Arabic you know what I mean, you think “Whoa.. we have become that daring and bold that we are talking about these kinds of issues?”
In a non-pretentious and non-Hollywoodish way, this movie shows the strength of female friendship, solidarity between women no matter their religion, in a land where wounds of sectarian wars are still open.
”Peaceful coexistence between people is very obvious in the movie, but it wasn’t intentional. It’s just the way I see Lebanon. We live together perfectly normal”, explains Nadine.
The movie doesn’t end in any special turnout of events or resolvent that would disturb it’s quiet and subtle tone. Instead, it leaves its viewers with their thoughts as they watch two elderly ladies walking home through streets of Beirut, holding hands while melancholic Arabic music plays in the background.
”These are stories that I’ve heard of, were inspired by people I know and people who told me their stories. The way in which the issues are tackled is not provocative. There are issues people are living with, especially in Lebanon. The aim is not to give lessons, but to show things as they are”, says Nadine.
Warm, seductive, melancholic, just like its name and the Beirut from Nadine’ memories, this movie is my recommendation for everyone in love with this city and those who are yet to fall in love.
The article was originally published in Croatian media: Libela.hr