(16/05/08) – Lebanon is a country in flux, its films often focussing on introspection and dissection of the madness and consequences of its bloody civil war. In recent years the political situation has led to further insecurities in a country that has justly prided itself on the way that different societies have coexisted amicably in the past. It is against this backdrop of insecurity, of the increase in pressure on women particularly to adopt more conservative dress in this once liberal country that we find Caramel. What is so refreshing is the way that Caramel takes this backdrop of change and just deals with it as a part of everyday life; there are few laments for a better past and no introspection about the war. It remains true to its aims as a film about the lives of a group of women. It is the kind of ‘make the best of it together’ liberalism that is distinctly Lebanese.

The film centres on a beauty salon in Beirut owned by Layale (played by writer/director Nadine Labaki), who is confidant to both the customers and her staff. She does, however, have her own problems: the man in her life, Rabih, is married, which forces her to plan their liaisons with military precision. The better hotels require marriage certificates to allow couples to sleep in the same room, forcing the pair to seek out the seedier end of the market so that they can conduct their illicit relationship. Nisrine, who works at the salon, has marriage issues too – she is due to be wed but faces disgrace because she is not a virgin. Jemale is obsessed with her looks, convinced that she can still make it as a model despite her aging years. Rose is older still but the girls at the salon try pull out all the stops when she gets a date with Mr Charles, if she has the courage to go through with it. Together the women in this tight-knit community bolster each other’s spirits in the face of life’s adversities.

Nadine Labaki’s debut film is an assured ensemble piece that sketches out her diverse characters in a wholly believable way. On one level this is a basic drama about life in the city but the way that Labaki deftly handles the character threads and interactions, the themes and emotions, seems breathlessly effortless and is all the more impressive for it. This is a film that is packed full of weighty issues and struggles with society taboos: homosexuality, infidelity, the issue of beauty, aging, plastic surgery, hymen reinstatement surgery. It’s quite a list of, mainly, women’s issues, but Caramel balances them in a subtle way, never preaching, and making it all the more real. This is not a film that moralises. Indeed you might think that all this drama would be too much emotionally, but Caramel is more of a celebration of Beirut and there is a great deal of humour running through the film. Nor is this a male-bashing piece, there are few characters that are actually bad, the conflicts generally come from wider societal concerns than any real nemesis.

The caramel of the title serves as a metaphor the film’s attitude to life – sweet but painful. This caramel is a mix of sugar and lemon juice boiled and kneaded into a soft toffee that is used for hair removal. The combination of sweet and sour, of beauty and pain, reflects the characters and their relationship with their own image as well as the way that ideas of feminine beauty are paradoxically both desired and derided.

The cast of non-professional actors brings a real sense of verisimilitude to Caramel. Coupled with unobtrusive but delicately lit camerawork, Caramel‘s light tone and weighty issues, its entourage of finely realised characters and lean scripting make for an uplifting film that is both highly amusing, touching and achingly poignant. Nadine Labaki is clearly a talent to watch out for.

Caramel is released in the UK today, 16 May.