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A taste of
something sweet

A taste of
something sweet


First-time Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's film Caramel is a mild look at oppressed women who find comfort in each other's company.

As tasty and bathed in golden hues as its title, Caramel is the auspicious feature debut of director Nadine Labaki, who uses the pivot point of a Beirut beauty salon to gently investigate the lives, loves, and neuroses of five very different women. For these Lebanese ladies, each restricted in some way by societal and religious mores, it's tough to be strong and independent. The only way to do it, argues Labaki, is to do it together.

The director herself plays the salon's owner, Layale, whose affair with a married man is threatened when the man's wife comes in for a waxing (administered via a gob of hot caramel). She's not the only one bumping up against romantic obstacles, though -- coworker Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) works out her attraction to women by washing their hair, while sassy Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), engaged to be married, frets that her devout new husband will notice she's not exactly a virgin. As if that weren't enough, aging actress Jamale (Gisele Aouad) -- who plays a frequent client of the salon -- is so desperate to appear young that she's begun faking period stains, quite unlike the ladies' older friend Rose (Siham Haddad), who has resigned herself to a life of taking care of her batty, screeching sister.

While that might seem like quite a bit of story, Labaki (who also cowrote the screenplay) isn't all that interested in advancing plot. Few of the story lines progress very much over the course of the movie -- even Rima, who develops a strong flirtation with an attractive customer, never acts on it (though she does give the woman a really great haircut). Instead, the director is interested in mood and character, attributes that Caramel delivers in spades.

Labaki finished shooting her film in July 2006, only days before war broke out with Israel, and her Lebanon is a gorgeous, enticing place that worships its kohl-eyed women but suppresses their natures at the same time. Labaki tweaks those rules subtly, but even if her characters occasionally submit to them, they still broadcast a rebellious streak that's as bold as a brand-new look.

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Kyle Buchanan