Caramel, the first feature film from the Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, is quite a debut. It premiered in the Directors' Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and went on to be shown at several other festivals across the globe. It was subsequently distributed to more than 40 countries and grossed more than $13 million (Dh48m). Not bad for a film that cost $1.6 million (Dh5.8m) to make.
Labaki not only co-wrote the script and directed the film, but also starred in it. It follows the lives of five women, with much of the action taking place in a Beirut salon, Si Belle, where three of them work. Labaki plays the unhappy protagonist Layale, a young unmarried woman who lives with her parents and has fallen in love with a married man. Her co-workers, Nisrine and Rima, have their problems, too. Nisrine is suffering from pre-wedding worries while Rima struggles with her own romantic life.
Rounding out the quintet are the ageing actress Jamale, a salon customer who spends most of her time trying fruitlessly to pin back her face and smooth her wrinkles with sticky tape, and Rose (or Auntie Rose, as the other women call her), an elderly woman who lives in an apartment next to the salon. Rose works as a seamstress and spends most of her time trying to care for her mentally unbalanced sister, Lili.
The film's name comes from the sticky, sweet mixture that is used for waxing treatments and also serves as a metaphor for the women's' close relationships with one another. The film follows the women as each attempts to solve her own problems. Layale battles fruitlessly and painfully with her obsession with the married man (who, cleverly, is never clearly revealed to the audience), Nisrine tries to solve her wedding anxiety and Rima falls in love. Meanwhile, Jamale becomes increasingly desperate to prove that she's younger than everybody thinks, and Rose is asked out by an elderly man who comes to her one afternoon with a suit he needs to be tailored.
The sympathetic audience hopes throughout the film that an autumn romance is on the cards but, eventually, duty to her sister wins out and Rose leaves her suitor, Charles, in a coffee shop. With the exception of Nisrine, who does finally get married, the other women's choices are left unresolved. While the material covered is nothing new (how many times have we all watched films about relationship problems?), the film feels fresh. Labaki has captured the starkest moments of these women's lives and, despite their traumas, portrayed them all as thoroughly likeable characters. By the end, even though we want to pick up Layale and give her a good shake for pining over a married man, we still feel desperately sorry for her. We almost want to join this melancholic quintet, to be part of the group that seeks refuge in the salon and honestly shares it problems.
There are echoes of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood here, and because of the salon setting there are inevitable comparisons to draw with Steel Magnolias, too. Because of its similar themes, Caramel is most often classed as a romantic comedy. But bracketing the film as such detracts from it because, coming from Lebanon at the time that it did, it's a groundbreaking work. Shooting finished nine days before the 2006 war with Israel, and the film was released exactly one year later.
"It was not easy because I made a film that was talking about life and colours and people and love and everyday life when my country was at war again," Labaki said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year. While it might not have been easy, Labaki has managed to create a melancholic film that is about all of those things. It's a beautiful, masterful piece of work and one that, as a first effort, deserves to be especially applauded.