Nadine Labaki in Caramel

I spent a very enjoyable 95 mins watching Caramel. Afterwards, the more I thought and read about the film, the more I thought this is exactly the kind of film that I want to discuss on this blog. It isn’t just the subject matter of the film, but what its production, distribution and exhibition raise as issues in global film culture.

To take the narrative first, Caramel offers a specific location – a hairdressing salon/beauty shop in Beirut – which acts as the locus for the intersecting stories of five women. (The title refers to the sugar solution used in depilation treatments.) The five women are different in terms of age and religion (and possibly ethnicity?) but they face similar problems in finding happiness in the still traditional society in this the most cosmopolitan of Arab cities.

The film has been widely described as a ‘romantic comedy’ but this is misleading, I think. Certainly, there are comic moments but these are matched by sad and downbeat scenes. This could make it a ‘bittersweet’ comedy, but the structure is wrong for a romantic comedy. Although the film ends with a wedding for one of the women, it isn’t the defining moment for the other four and no one story is really more important than the others, even if Nadine Labaki is the stand-out presence in the film, playing the character who runs the salon as well as directing and co-writing.

I think this is a good example of a melodrama. Were it not for the usual misunderstanding about terms, I would see this as a soap opera/telenovela kind of narrative – massively popular throughout the region whether from Egypt or imported. It isn’t as sensational as the TV soaps, but it has the same kinds of ingredients – the struggles of the women, the constraining family ties and that melodrama essential, a wonderful music soundtrack.

According to the press release and interviews by Nadine Labaki, most of the cast were non-actors so the film has the feel of a neo-realist melodrama. The playing is generally very good and deeply moving in very different ways – the frustration of living with a partner (it’s not clear if this is a sister, mother or aunt) with either dementia or learning difficulties, the cruelty of the modelling/acting game for older women, the gentle beginnings of a relationship between two younger women as well as the pain of a relationship with a married man. Haircutting is a potentially erotic activity and here it leads to a breathtaking transformation of an already beautiful woman into someone of astonishing beauty.

Caramel is a pleasure on almost every level. The shooting of the film must have been difficult (it wrapped just as the 2006 war broke out) and we actually see little of Beirut as a city, but there is a great deal of local culture and ‘colour’ crammed in. I may have missed a few things related to local culture, but overall I thought the film was well conceived in speaking to both local and international audiences.

Considering production, this is one of many films from Africa and Asia that have reached screens around the world thanks to the tradition of French producers and cultural agencies looking ‘outwards’ to promote films from Francophone countries and others – British producers please note. Lebanon was only directly under a French mandate for around 26 years from 1920 to 1946, yet French became the language of the Christian middle-class in Lebanon and a French language culture was established. (The importance of French-speaking as a marker of middle-class status and education is an ingredient in the plot.) Of course, French colonial policy was not necessarily benign or progressive, but its legacy has meant more films getting a wider release than their equivalents (not that there are many) from Britain’s colonial legacy.

Caramel was co-produced by a French company and it got its first break via an appearance at Cannes in 2007 and a subsequent entry for the foreign language Oscar. In the UK the film opened a year later with support for digital prints and has proved a notable success. In week 1 it opened on 46 screens courtesy of independent distributor Momentum and entered the UK Top 10 at 9. After three weeks it was still at No 10 and looks likely to make nearly £400,000 which I suspect will be a record for a film in Arabic in the UK (does anybody know a higher grossing film – Battle of Algiers possibly?). I’m pleased it has been a success and I’m sure the large numbers of people disappointed by Sex and the City would have had a much better time watching Caramel. Momentum is a UK company releasing both European specialised films and US/UK genre pictures.