Hair and Feelings

This Lebanese chick flick is entertaining enough, even if Cylons are few and far between

Caramel is kind of like Sex and the City if it was set in Beirut, and the women weren't hideous monsters with the moral sensibility of ravenous hyenas. Also, unlike the women in Sex and the City, the women in Caramel don't spend all of their time trying to find rich men to have sex with, and their clothes don't look like the tattered remains of a death match between a leopard and a ballerina.

So it's not much like Sex and the City. But it's about four (or maybe five or six) women seeking love and life and better hair. Three of them--Layale, Nisrine and Rima--work in a beauty salon called "Si Bella." Layale, who's so pretty that she's not allowed to leave Lebanon without contacting the Bureau of National Artistic Treasures, is having an affair with a married man. While Beirut is reasonably cosmopolitan, this is still seen as roughly the equivalent of forcing kittens to rape puppies. As a result, Layale's self-esteem suffers.

Unless! Will that handsome policeman ask her out? I guess we'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, Nisrine is getting married, but she has a dark secret: Her husband will not be the first to enter her southern demilitarized zone. This is a big deal, as they come from traditional families.

And Rima has many feelings in her heart, but few of those feelings are directed at opposite-gender individuals. Mostly, she likes to smile at the ladies and wash their hair and think Sapphic thoughts of Bilitis while engaging in imaginary same-sex activities.

While the salonistas work out their romantic entanglements and predilections, Jamale, a former soap-opera star, is saddened by her fading beauty and inability to get roles; and Rose, the post-middle-age seamstress, thinks she might have one more chance for love with the handsome Charles.

Mostly, this is what the less-enlightened refer to as a "chick flick." I would never use such a sexist term, preferring "female-oriented entertainment vehicle." As such, the central motif of the film involves a group of women sitting around and mooning over men (and women) while talking about their feelings.

For the most part, on that level, it works. The opening 20 minutes or so are extremely witty. Clever banter in the hair salon leads to Three's Company-esque sequences, like when Layale has to wax her lover's wife's nether regions. Ha! Hot caramel on the inner thighs of a love rival! What will Mr. Roper think!

But Caramel falls prey to a slow middle third as things get very predictable. Strangely, the predictable progress just kind of halts about two-thirds of the way through, and most of the stories that seem like they're heading toward a resolution are left unfinished. That's probably better than playing them out to the bitter end, and with this kind of film, the average audience can make up their own endings anyway.

Still, while I waited for Rima to get her hot lesbian scene (Spoiler: There is no hot lesbian scene!), my mind drifted, and the goodwill that the witty script had earned in the first third dissipated.

But then it's not a movie made for me. The intended audience will probably hang on the possibilities of Layale finding a better life away from her married boyfriend, and of the elderly Rose getting a chance to start again. For my part, I kept thinking things like, "I wonder if they're all Cylons? Would that be cool? Cylon Lebanese hairdressers? Yes. That would be cool."

Of course, as it turns out, most of them are not Cylons. And yet, in spite of that, most of the actresses give good performances. Nadine Labaki, who directs and plays Layale, the anchor of the ensemble cast, is excellent. Her expression perfectly combines self-hatred and other-hatred in her unpleasant dealings with the cad she loves. Sihame Haddad, who plays Rose, the aging seamstress, is also great, presenting a complicated array of feelings, moving rapidly from anger at her annoying, mentally diminished mother to looks of longing at her elderly and dapper potential lover.

The rest of the cast ranges from slightly broad (Gisele Aouad as Jamale is a bit too sketch-comedy in her stylings) to perfectly natural (Yasmine Elmasri's Nisrine could walk off the screen and be perfectly at home in the real world). This mostly works with the main aesthetic thrust of the film: These are supposed to seem like women you might know, like people in the real world. Even if their circumstances are occasionally contrived, their inner lives should resonate with the audience, so, in spite of the film's slow sections, Layale, Nisrine, Rima and Rose seem like people you'd want to befriend.

So you have to decide if you want to hang with some friends, even if there'll be a few lulls in the conversation. If so, Caramel is for you. If not, the American version, where the women all have superpowers and fight crime, should be coming out shortly.

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