When you think of a movie about the Middle East, or a movie about Lebanon specifically, you probably think war, terrorism, politics, or maybe Islamic theocracy (though in fact Lebanon has just about as many Christians as Muslims)—“heavy” subjects like that, where there’s horrible conflict and people are getting shot and such. “Under the Bombs,” for instance.
“Caramel,” though, has zero of any of that. Not even as a small subplot, a part of a character’s backstory, a topic of conversation, or something on the TV or radio in the background. The absence is so total that it has to have been a conscious decision to make this movie solely about “ordinary” people and the ups and downs of their “ordinary” lives, to show that not only is there a lot more going on in “war torn” areas of the world than what we see on the news, but you can tell whole stories set there and never have to incorporate any of that sensationalist stuff.
That’s actually kind of refreshing.
The movie is a “slice of life” type, where there’s no central story to speak of with a beginning, middle, and end, but instead there are various subplots that develop a bit as the movie goes along, but aren’t “resolved” in any clear way. Most or all of these stories are already going on before we meet the characters, and they’ll continue beyond the movie’s end.
The main characters are a group of women who work together in a salon (where, among other things, they stick caramel on women’s bodies and rip it off as a form of “waxing”), as well as some of their families, friends, and love interests, and other people in the neighborhood.
It’s basically a gentle, pleasant movie with likable characters—a soft, humane drama with moments of humor.
As such it can be a little flimsy and slow moving at times, but the acting and the filmmaking are solid and professional enough that it never drops off too much.
And while there’s nothing that stands out as a big, big high point, there were a few things here and there that got through to me, that I liked.
The old sisters (I think they’re sisters) in the neighboring shop are good characters. One of them is batty, living in a dream world 80% of the time, nagging and annoying her sister to no end. Their scenes are mostly played for humor, but there’s kind of a serious edge to them also, and that’s touching in its way. The sane sister on the surface experiences taking care of her crazy sibling as a burden, as detracting from her opportunity to have a life, yet you also see that she gets a lot of good out of the situation. And the crazy sister, while she’s shouting out nonsense and being difficult the aforementioned 80% of the time, the other 20% she’s aware and in fact can say some loving and appreciative things to her sister. It’s kind of like an impulsive three year old who blurts out the occasional “I love you Mommy” in between her tantrums.
The other thing that connected most with me emotionally involved one of the salon women (Nadine Labaki), the main character of the movie insofar as there is one. She’s involved with a married man. There’s a scene where she goes to enormous lengths to create the ideal day for him, for his birthday or some celebration. The only hotel room she can get for them is a real crappy one, so she spends half the day scrubbing it down like a maid to put it in the best possible shape. She bakes a cake (apparently not all that well). She puts balloons and decorations up. And of course she spends a great deal of time fixing herself up to be beautiful, painting her toenails and all the rest.
There’s just such a loving quality to it all. Even if the guy’s not worth it, or even if the relationship itself is such that they’re both in the wrong to be pursuing it, there’s a real sweetness to what she’s doing that shines through. Ignore the context and complications, and there’s something very pure about her single-minded focus on making another human being happy and showing her love for him.
Mostly the film is too light for me to give it more than a mild recommendation. It’s well done, it likes its characters and encourages the audience to do likewise, and it has a few scenes that maybe get a little deeper and reveal a little more about the emotional lives of the characters, so it’s certainly not a bad movie by any means. But most of it didn’t draw me in more than a little.