Director: Nadine Labaki; Release date: 16 May
Set in Beirut, Caramel explores the contrast between the supposedly "open, free and emancipated" nature of present-day Lebanon and the reality of life for five working class women. Written and directed by, and starring, Nadine Labaki, the film depicts the guilt and frustration these women experience when their aspirations conflict with social expectations.
Based in a beauty parlour called Si Belle (So Pretty), we see how each of the main characters struggles to be themselves under this pressure to conform. Layale, a Christian, is having an affair with a married man, Rabih. Still living at home at the age of 30, she shares a bedroom with her younger brother. She cannot even rent a hotel room to spend time alone with her lover, as only married women have the right to do this.
Nisrine, a Muslim, is about to marry but worries that her fiancé will discover she is not a virgin. Accompanied by her friends, she visits a clinic to have her hymen stitched up.
Rima, an introverted tomboy who works in the salon with Layale and Nisrine, rejects the advances of the delivery guy and is attracted to a beautiful and mysterious stranger who occasionally visits the salon. This stranger is, as Labaki describes her, "the perfect example of a perfect woman", and yet she too is clearly dissatisfied with her life and welcomes Rima's attention.
Jamale, a regular client in the salon, refuses to accept that she is ageing and desperately wants to become an actress.
Next door to the salon is a dressmaker's shop where Auntie Rose and her slightly deranged elderly sister, Lili, live. Having spent her entire life caring for Lili, Rose lets love pass her by when romance arrives in the shape of an elegant stranger called Mr Charles.
Despite these numerous constraints, the film is a warm and entertaining portrayal of a group of resourceful women who use humour to overcome life's setbacks. Their genuine affection for one another stands out and Labaki is to be congratulated for making a film where all of the main characters are ordinary women performed by non-professional actors.
Critics have commented on the unusual absence of any reference to Lebanon's civil war in Caramel. Labaki, who was 17 when the war ended in 1990, replied that she belongs to a generation who want to look at different themes and that she did not set out to make a political film. And yet, as the shooting for it ended just as war broke out with Israel during the summer of 2006, she felt guilty for making a light-hearted film about "women, love and friendship", but decided to continue as a means of "surviving the war".
All of the women portrayed in Caramel are definitely survivors, and the mix of Christian and Muslim characters that coexist together is a positive one. But I couldn't help feeling that the film invests too much in the idea that a new hairdo and a beauty treatment are able to transcend the difficulties of life, as epitomised in the title, which refers to the sugary-sweet mixture used for waxing.