When I first saw Caramel I loved it because I recognised my life in Beirut. I relished hearing Lebanese Arabic, the exuberance of conversations and the outspoken banter. It reminded me of the family waxing sessions when as I child I asked for a bit of caramel to eat, and when later I was introduced as a teenager to the painful family ritual. But it also reminded me of my first experience of an-all women space. I was brought up in a Jewish family and went to school at a French Lycée. In both institutions there was no official gender segregation although gender roles were very strictly defined. One day I was asked for tea by a Moslem friend who on reaching 17 had to leave school to get married. The visit was a revelation and the root of my firm belief that women-only space and events, even now, are liberating. My friend received me in a large room with a brazier in the middle. There were two old women, grandmother and grand-aunt I presumed, there was Mother fussing over me and offering me drinks and sweets. I was introduced to other women, sisters and aunts. A few children were playing around. I was amazed by the warm atmosphere of welcome to the group as opposed to the formal mixed gatherings I was used to. My friend had been rather reserved at school. I had never seen her as free as she seemed to be in this environment. I saw her real self for the first time.
It is with these reminiscences in mind that I thought about cultural differences and worried in case the U3A members would not appreciate the film. I needn ‘t have worried. The film elicited lively contributions by nearly all members. Each one picked one of the scenes or subject of the film that they particularly appreciated. This reflected its international success.
There are many aspects of women’ s lives considered in this film. They are hinted at subtly mainly by cinematographic means and comic interludes. Labaki gives us space to think throughout.
By concentrating on the environment of ordinary working women Nadine Labaki has achieved a remarkable and very rich film. By setting it in a beauty salon in a run down part of Beirut she has contrived to express the sensuality, resilience, friendship, solidarity and humour of women in the context of family and society pressures. The conflicts are not expressed overtly but hinted at and not over dramatised. In a slice-of-life genre Labaki has threaded the unifying theme of love. But the sentence “Do you think that you are the only one living a lie?” uttered by one of the characters challenges the usual romantic feel-good comedy style of film.
But my purpose here is to consider the older women. Amongst the 6 main protagonists there are three older women of different ages in this film. Jamale is divorced and has two children. She is an actor who featured in advertisements. She is menopausal and desperate to hide her age. At the salon she tries to disguise her lines with sticky tape, she demands to have a hairdo like the woman in the magazine (‘but she could be your daughter’ says the stylist) and she is seen a few times experiencing hot flushes. In two bizarre scenes, she fakes menstrual blood. At an audition she is in competition with much younger women who notice and point out blood on her dress. At the wedding scene we follow her to the toilet where she asks to jump the queue because she has her periods. Inside she proceeds to use red dye to soil some toilet paper and sanitary towel. In both scenes her age and lack of male partner are thus underlined. She is a rather over the top pathetic character when in public but not so with the other women in the salon. I do not recall any film where menstrual blood is openly referred to. The ‘menopausal woman’ is often mentioned in papers about women in the cinema but never to my knowledge has the loss of fertility and ageing been expressed in such visual terms.
There is then the 95 years old Lily. She is pleasantly demented. Based on a real woman known in Beirut she spends her life collecting papers in the road or the fines on cars, believing they are letters from her lover. She taunts and irritates her sister the seamstress who looks after her. In one scene she paints her face in a travesty of make up and declares her love to a client of her sister’s. We have here a powerful visual comment on the relationship of the salon and the idea of love. At times she is locked in a room and then she asks to be let out to go a dinner party or to catch a plane. Lily is part of the street and the salon women know her well and converse with her.
Rose is Lily’s younger sister. We have here a working woman of over 60, a seamstress who needs to earn her living and who also cares for her demented sister. She has a kind face and sweet smile. Her hair is not cared for and she wears no make up. She has a good relationship with the women of the salon who call her Auntie Rose and offer her their services that she refuses.. Her sister is trying and very difficult to control and she occasionally has to lock her in. She does admonish her and tells her off but at the end of the day they both pray together. We see them side by side in the same bed with their rosaries. Rose is tempted by the idea of engaging in a relationship with a French man who asks her out. She prepares herself, by having her hair done, and putting make up on under the constant pestering of her sister. Rose soon realises that she cannot leave Lily. She sadly wipes her make up off. Of all six main characters Rose is the only one who does not live a lie, she is the sane person who sees things as they are, and gives up the illusion of love.
The credits appear over a long shot of the two sisters walking away in a Beirut street. They are holding hands, Lily is carrying a plastic bag full of papers and Rose stops from time to time to pick up a paper and give it to her sister. A touching visual expression of loving care.
I love this film for its humour sometimes barbed, for its local but also universal relevance, for its female point of view, for its humanism and for its wonderful use of the cinematic medium.
I have only written about the older women. There is so much more to write about this film …