It's an ode to sensuality! It tackles "risky" material! It's lovable! So why didn't Oscar embrace it?
From the first moments of Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” you know what you’re in for. There’s a pop-Arab soundtrack that bridges traditional and contemporary music, a whimsical montage of different women working their way through the streets of Beirut, and a seriocomic encounter between the beautiful heroine and the handsome fellow who’s clearly smitten with her (a fact she hasn’t yet noticed). “Caramel” is an ode to female bonding — it’s a beauty-shop movie, for God’s sake! — a celebration of female sensuality and a series of interlocking love stories, and it positively revels in the conventions of those genres. It’s a reassuring and delicious film, but in no sense an adventurous one.
Still, there’s no doubt that Labaki gets extra credit for making a film in an Arab country that casually depicts friendship between Muslims and Christians, never mentions violence or political strife, and in its own gentle fashion sidles up against social issues that remain sensitive in that part of the world. Layale, the film’s heroine (played by the luscious Labaki herself, a Penélope Cruz-style looker) is sleeping with a married man, while one of the employees at Layale’s beauty salon, Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), is confronting her own attraction to women. Mind you, all this is presented Arab cinema-style, with no unauthorized touching between unmarried people. All we see of Layale’s illicit liaisons is a parked car with two figures inside, while Rima’s big lesbian encounter involves washing a winsome brunette’s hair. With plenty of creamy conditioner!
Layale, a devout Christian who still lives with her parents, so obsessed with her adulterous lover that she barely pays attention to Youssef (Adel Karam), the sultry, fully available and age-appropriate young policeman who’s always hanging around the salon giving her parking tickets. Her best friend, Nisrine (Yasmine al-Masri), is a good Muslim girl who’s engaged to be married — and needs to convince her future husband that she’s still, you know, intact. (When it’s simply not so.) Then there’s Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), the aging soap actress trying to hold back the hands of time, and Rose (Siham Haddad), the adorable seamstress in her 60s who may get one last chance at romance.
All these characters’ destinies unfold without the slightest hint of surprise. But Yves Sehnaoui’s cinematography is always delectable; despite its issues, Beirut is a lovely Mediterranean city and a natural film location. Labaki’s cast (most of them non-professional actors) handle the plot’s broad twists and turns with brio. The director herself is both a natural comedienne and a beauty; when Layale ends up (improbably enough) caramel-waxing the nether regions of Christine (Fadia Stella), her lover’s ebullient and charming wife, she approaches the task with a sleepy-eyed slow burn that’s equal parts sadism and self-pity. (Yes, the film’s title refers to the candy concoction typically used as leg-wax in the Middle East.) “Caramel” didn’t end up getting a foreign-language Oscar nomination — it was Lebanon’s official entry — and probably isn’t distinctive enough to merit one. But it’s a warm midwinter treat.
“Caramel” opens Feb. 1 in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., with wider national release to follow.
More Related Stories
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
For the latest movie coverage from Andrew O'Hehir, see his author page.