Caramel, the directing debut of Lebanese actress/music video director Nadine Labaki, concerns five women who frequent a beauty salon in Beirut, their lives unfolding onscreen in between hair stylings and waxings (the latter accomplished with the sticky, burnt-sugar mixture for which the film is named). Each of the women is meant to represent the various challenges of being a “modern” Middle Eastern woman. I put the word “modern” in quotations not to suggest an incongruence between modernity and the middle east, but rather to note that the very notion of a “modern woman” is a construction that has a history about as long as the formulation of the modern nation-state. This construction encourages women to believe that they must simultaneously balance some amorphous notion of tradition based on a myth of an authentic past with a construction of a progressive “modern,” which could include definitions of women’s work, both in and outside of the home, and, increasingly, a globalized notion of beauty. So, while Caramel is essentially a lighthearted romantic comedy, a Lebanese Sex in the City if you will, minus the nudity or raunch, it’s most striking for how Labaki depicts the constant negotiation of the “modern” women, illustrating the ways in which people can resist the roles imposed on them, and the limits of that resistance.
Click here to read Joanne Nucho’s review of Caramel.