Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writers: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, and Rodney Al Haddad
Actors: Nadine Labaki , Yasmine Al Masri , Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad , Adel Karam , Aziza Semaan and Siham Haddad
By Jillian Chilingerian
Caramel isn’t just a sweet, gooey substance used for waxing. Directed and written by Nadine Labaki, “Caramel” (2007) shares a glimpse into the lives of five contemporary Lebanese women from different backgrounds.
At the rundown Si Belle Salon, owned by Layale (Nadine Labaki), five women come together to shed societal norms in a war-torn Beirut. The special thing about this film is that it never mentions the country’s current events and instead makes the women’s stories the main focus. The beauty parlor is used as a non-conformity escape from the pressures of Lebanese society where the women can share every detail of their everyday experience with no judgment.
A major theme of the film is solidarity amongst women. Each individual story intertwines with the others to create an entire conversation about womanhood. Even though she runs a business, Layale still lives with her parents while having an affair with a married man. Nisrine, a Muslim stylist, is engaged to a man but is keeping the secret of not being a virgin from her fiance and family. Jamale, an actress, is in denial about aging. Rima, the shop’s clean-up girl, is a lesbian but no one outside the shop knows. Rose, an elderly woman, is afraid to fall in love in her sixties.
The title of “Caramel” reflects how the women alternate between self-representation and traditional norms depending on the setting. Labaki sets the women between two worlds where they are attached to tradition while also seeking out their own identities. By using women of different ages she is able to show limitations of choice at each stage of life for Lebanese women. Between these women, the film covers premarital sex, lesbianism, aging, and affairs.
The structure of the film functions in a patriarchal space almost to signify how these women are stuck in these spaces while also exploring feminity. One scene where Rima gets a makeover before the wedding plays into the idea of conventional beauty norms women are expected to uphold in this society. The extremes women go through to achieve the ideal are expressed by the pain they experience in their individual journies. While each woman appears to be independent they do not partake in any male spaces. They each face a stigma that they try hard to preserve their images in the public space.
In the case of Jamale she is seen in society as old and not attractive to the media. She spends the film faking menstruation and having plastic surgery procedures to look younger to observers. The camera work in the audition scenes emphasizes how she is trapped in this endless cycle to prove she is young in order to work.
Jamale isn’t the only one trapped by societal norms. Nisrine carries the shame of not being a virgin and undergoes a procedure so that she can be seen as worthy to her romantic partner. Rose has been conditioned that dating is not something women of her age can do. Layale carries the guilt of being with a married man and Rima prefers pants to express her sexuality but compromises to conformity through a makeover.
While there is a patriarchal structure in place, women occupy the space within. Layale’s lover is never shown onscreen just the back of his head. The camera focuses on Layale’s pain throughout the relationship. While the women occupy space inside the male gaze, it is obvious that they feel like outsiders and better identify with practices outside their society. Nisrine’s surgery should be seen as liberating as she is absolving herself of the shame she carries and is able to save herself. Looks obsessed Jamal lives in society as a divorced woman, something that is looked down on. Rima expresses her sexuality and never seems to feel guilty.
A major strength of the film is how it contrasts the public and private spheres. In the private space of the beauty salon, these women explore their desires that they could never do in public. The camera gives a peek into what happens in the lives of women behind closed doors. By showing the women in public spaces it shows how they can’t talk freely and resort to private spaces such as the bathroom.
“Caramel” taps into the importance of having strong solidarity between women and how it can challenge societal norms. In the beauty salon even though it represents a place of beauty standards, it turns into a communal space for discussion on taboo subjects.