Tuesday, April 07, 2009

CARAMEL: Sweet and Charming 'Hen-Flick'

CARAMEL (dramedy)
Cast: Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Sihame Haddad, Adel Karam, Gisèle Aouad, Aziza Semaan and Fadia Stella
Director: Nadine Labaki
Time: 95 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

Nadine Labaki (left) as Layale in CARAMEL

PREAMBLE: The title refers to the sweet gooey stuff they put in your popcorn. In this movie, it is heated up and used like wax - to remove unwanted hair (ouch!). Yes, Caramel, which is centred around a beauty salon in Beirut, is about beauty, pleasure and pain.

And if you have seen films about hair salons like Steel Magnolias and Beauty Shop, you will know that it deals with boosting self-confidence among women - and not so much about beauty or hairstyling. However, what's special about Caramel is that it is co-written and directed by first-timer Nadine Labaki who also plays the lead character.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Basically, it deals with the problems of a bevy of women involved with the Si Belle beauty shop owned by Layale (Nadine Labaki), a single woman who is having an affair with a married man. Although the charming and sexy Layale has her share of admirers, including a drop-dead handsome cop (Adel Karam), she is so stuck on Rabih that she spends her waking moments waiting for his call and for his arrival.

Layale's assistant, Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) is a Muslim and her forthcoming marriage poses a problem: she is no longer a virgin. Shampoo girl Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is tormented by her attraction to women and especially to a lovely customer (Fatme Safa) with long hair. Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), a tailor in a neighbouring shop, also finds herself attracted to a handsome customer but she has to choose between her happiness and familial duties to her demented elder sister Lily (Aziza Semaan). Lastly, there is Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a small-time actress who just refuses to grow old.

HITS & MISSES: There is nothing really exceptional about Caramel. However, with five subplots vying for our attention at the same time, Caramel is a 'busy' and energetic movie. Of course, some stories, like those of Layale's affair and Nisrine's wedding, are more interesting than others. Still, there are many fascinating insights into Lebanese culture and lifestyle, as well as some comic relief provided mainly by Aziza Semaan's senile Lily.

The rest of the non-professional cast, especially Labaki herself, are charming and watchable, if not talented. It makes us wonder if they had been meticulously selected for their roles.

The most remarkable thing about Caramel is that Labaki, a first-time feature film director, has managed to make it look like a professional job. The movie, which garnered critical acclaim when it was released in 2007, was selected as Lebanon’s official submission for the Academy Award's best foreign film of 2007.

THE LOWDOWN: A heart-warming 'hen-flick' (as in hen-party) to enjoy with friends.


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