Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2007 10:59 am 
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Caramel (Arabic title: Sukr banaat) is a Lebanese film with its own vernacular charm. It's as messy and disorganized as the echt bourgeois interiors and the ordinary, chummy hairdressing establishment that is the hub of the action. This is a woman's picture, a syrupy but perhaps fortunately disorganized comedy of the street and beauty salon. It slips around among subplots with nothing really central, uses sloppy jump cuts, doesn't tell much of a story. . . but there's one sweet lesbian, one aging would-be TV actress (Jamal (Gisèle Aouad)) who keeps showing up for disastrous tryouts. There's a fiancée about to be married who's afraid the groom will discover she's not a virgin. (That's Nisrine: Yasmine Al Masri).) There's an old maid seamstress courted by a dignified, well turned out elderly chap. There's a handsome cop outside (Youssef, Adel Karam) who all the ladies have their eye on. Maybe a dye job can change your life; and the cop comes in for a "treatment" that involves trimming his eyebrows (that's what they use the caramel for, as a depilatory) and shaving off his mustache.

Layale (Labaki herself) has just broken up with someone. Stylist colleagues Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) and Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) commiserate. Rima gives very special facial massages to a beautiful lady (Siham Fatmeh Safa); it's those that are arousing her lesbian tendencies--but her manner and dress already give it away. Rose (Sihame Haddad) is the seamstress, whose efforts to open up to the courtly Charles (Dimitri Staneofski) are constantly thwarted by her annoying nutty sister Lili (Aziza Semaan).

Labaki, whose feature debut this is, has a background of videos and TV commercials. Perhaps the holdover from that is the preponderance of beautiful women. There's nothing slick and commercial about her movie, though. Something about this suggests Francois Dupeyron's charming 2005 Monsieur Ibrahim, where also there is much focus on the quartier and people are drifting and longing for love (or losing their virginity). There's a good, natural feeling about Carmel. Funny thing: all this happens in Beirut but you would never guess that was a place torn by civil war every other decade and recently bombed by Israel. Life goes on; caramel's still sticky; and women bond, whether they're Christian or Muslim. But let's face it: as flavorful as it is, and valid as a slice of Lebanese culture, Caramel is weakly structured, characters are superficial and too broadly drawn, and Labaki may not be invited to Cannes again for a while. Still, this is a rare artifact, and the women are easy on the eye.

Seen in Paris October 2007

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