If you get your legs waxed in Lebanon, the salon attendant will coat your skin in caramel--molten sugar heated to the unctuous softball candy stage and folded between the palms until it takes on the silky kneaded texture of hot taffy. Caramel's opening shots are an ode to this culturally specific confection, as the camera glides over a voluptuous landscape of amber syrup undulating like desert sands. The women habitués of the Si Belle Salon--aging actress Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), soon-to-be-married hairdresser Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), discreetly butch shampoo girl Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), and knuckle-bitingly gorgeous salon owner Layale (director Nadine Labaki)--cook up a fresh batch in the back room, sneaking tastes of the soon-to-be-used depilatory by twirling the hot sugar around their fingers in beehive loops and popping it into their giggling mouths.
It's nothing we haven't seen before, from Steel Magnolias to Fried Green Tomatoes--women in joyous, sensual solidarity that's only slightly marred by the preservative tang of a manufactured moment. But there's something about the richly colored, saffron and honey-kissed mise-en-scène that erodes our reluctance to sink into whatever this luxuriant movie has to offer, seen-it-before or not.
Many of these women's travails will be familiar to American audiences--like poor Layale, strung along by a married man--but the world these relatively modern women operate within is much more prim and restrained. Layale's affair goes no further than conversations in his parked car--between unmarried people, an act of public indecency in itself. And when a shy beauty (Fatmeh Safa) meekly asks the thunderstruck Rima for a shampoo, lathering up her hair is as far as a lesbian interlude can go. But the way Labaki (a music video director who recently switched to feature films) shoots the woman's black mane pouring like squid ink into the porcelain shampoo sink, it's clear something has consummated between the two. It's no wonder Rima uses up all the hot water.
If there's anything to complain about in this very likable movie, it's the stingy subtitles chopping out vast pages of what sounds like snappy and naturalistic dialogue between the female leads. Otherwise, Caramel stakes out a crowd-pleasing territory between the simple pleasures of the best chick flicks and the sensual profundities of Pedro Almodóvar's dramas about the interlocking company of women. It's true to the feminine experience without providing easy, insulting answers to the conundrums of age and loneliness, or veering wrongly in the other direction toward indignant victimhood. Instead, its spirit is sunny, delectable, and bittersweet. Life's like getting your legs sugar-waxed, Caramel poignantly concludes: You get the ouch and the sweet at the same time.