Released on DVD today is a movie called Caramel in which a group of women gossip and bond in the local beauty parlour. Yet another Hollywood chick flick, surely? Another film to file alongside Steel Magnolias and Beauty Shop? Well, despite its title, Nadine Labaki’s debut film as writer and director isn’t the sticky-sweet confection you might expect, though chick-flick fans will be rewarded if they find it shelf space alongside their favourites of the genre.
Rather than small-town Louisiana (Steel Magnolias) or downtown Atlanta (Beauty Shop), Labaki’s beauty parlour is found in Beirut, and while many of the heartaches and hassles faced by its women are universal, others are more culturally specific.
Take the role played by Labaki herself. Layale, the salon’s 30ish owner, is conducting a hopeless affair with a married man – so far, so familiar – but she still lives with her parents and is forced to book into a seamy hotel for a tryst with her lover because more reputable establishments require her to produce proof of marriage before she can take a room. Meanwhile, her colleague, Muslim bride-to-be Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), frets about her husband discovering she isn’t a virgin and arranges surgery to repair her hymen, whereas tomboyish Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) has a crush on a female customer that can only find expression in a sensual shampoo.
Of the salon’s customers, divorced actress Jamale (Gisèle Auoad) tries to keep the signs of ageing at bay as she does the round of auditions for work in TV commercials, while Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), the elderly seamstress who has a shop nearby, sacrifices her chance of love to care for her senile sister.
If all this makes the film sound more bitter than sweet, rest assured that Labaki – who gets assured performances from her largely non-professional cast - provides Caramel with moments of joy and laughter as well as tears. Incidentally, the caramel of the title is the concoction of boiled sugar, lemon juice and water that is used for removing unwanted hair in the Middle East.
Continuing the theme of Mediterranean takes on familiar movie genres, The 2 Sides of the Bed is a sequel to the smash-hit Spanish musical comedy The Other Side of the Bed, which set a farcical plot of infidelities and lies among a group of friends living in Madrid to a series of Spanish pop classics from the 70s and 80s. On the Iberian Peninsula, these numbers are as evocative as Mamma Mia’s Abba songs are over here, and when I saw The Other Side of the Bed at the Fantasporto film festival in Porto a few years ago, the audience went wild with delight.
The new movie is another tale of polysexual shenanigans in Madrid and several of the earlier film’s cast members reappear (including the leading male trio of Ernesto Alterio, Guillermo Toledo and Alberto San Juan). Once again, the characters interrupt their bed-hopping to burst into song, often accompanied by a troupe of dancers performing the kind of energetic but slightly naff dance routines you used to see on Saturday evenings on the BBC’s summertime specials. Taken as a whole, the film is silly, frivolous and fun, but I can’t say it translates particularly well beyond its home territory. Madrid may be closer, culturally and geographically, than Beirut, but of the two movies, it’s Labaki’s Caramel that supplies the more appealing recipe.
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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