The beauty parlor's proprietress is carrying on a hopeless affair with a married man. One of her assistants, engaged to be married, is resorting to desperate measures to hide the fact that she is not a virgin from her intended and his conservative family. Another assistant is rather surprised to discover that she is leaning toward lesbianism. One customer, coming to grips with menopause, is trying, rather frantically, to salvage what's left of her rather disappointing life by becoming an actress. The spinster seamstress who lives next door is flirting with a client, but her desire is deterred by her need to care for her aged and dotty sister. You could perhaps characterize this as a Shop of Fools. You might also think of Caramel as another version of one of those agreeable, insignificant little comedies like Barbershop in which a group of amiable people yak and yuk their way toward provisional solutions to their petty, all-too-human problems.
Except for one thing: Caramel is set in Beirut, where its leading characters speak either Arabic or French and never speak of the terrible torments visited upon Lebanon by its recent, tragic history. The director, co-writer and star of the film, Nadine Labaki (she's the shop's owner) dedicates the film to "My" Beirut and she presents the city as unscarred by warfare and looking, frankly, rather chic an up-and-coming Third World capital, which, of course, it once was before it was gripped by religio-ideological terror.
Curiously, this does not seem to me a huge defect. For one thing, even when people live under the worst forms of totalitarianism, ordinary life somehow proceeds. They get married, they have babies, they work at their jobs, they grouse about the nutsy behavior of their friends and relatives. But perhaps more important, Caramel (the title derives from the name of the preparation used for leg-waxing in the salon) testifies to the power of American popular culture at least briefly to override the endless traumas of our ever-more-violent political lives. Even Anne Frank filled a scrapbook with pictures of movie stars. And we are all too familiar with photographs of young men, roaming the ruined streets of Baghdad carrying Kalashnikovs, but wearing Rolling Stone T-shirts and Nikes. You can, if you will, deplore disconnects of this kind whatever became of the tragic sense of life? or you can find a perverse sort of hope in them. Even slightly dopy little American comedies carry with them an implicit promise of romance, of laughter, of (above all) the modest joys of ordinary life. And they carry that message without even knowing it's a message to the remotest and nastiest corners of the world.
Not that Caramel is dopy. It may be a first film, but Labaki, employing a cast that is full of non-professional actresses, is a slick and knowing filmmaker. Her multiple plot lines are neatly braided and though her characters are conventionalized they are also charming and capable of surprising us. I suppose, in the end, you'd have to say that her film is no big deal just another good-looking, gently humorous, pleasantly romanticized little comedy, which ends with everyone a little wiser than they began. But that reckons without the unique circumstances of its making and its implicit message the two cheers for normalcy that it offers up.