Monday, July 14, 2008


This is that Lebanese hairdresser film you might have heard about, the one where this woman wrote the script, directed the film, and played one of the leading characters. This is a pretty girlie film, but the title comes not from how girls love sweet stuff, but from how Lebanese hairdressers use hot caramel to depilate people. Ouch.

I probably would not have bothered with this film if it had not been set in Beirut, as I am too macho to normally go near films aimed at women. Having been on holidays once to Lebanon and knowing all about that country, however, I decided to check this out to see if it would feature any familiar locations. It does not, sadly, though it does all have a sense of vague familiarity.

One thing I had heard about the film was that it was being falsely advertised in some quarters as a roffletastic comedy, when in fact it is a good bit more serious than that. For the first bit of the film I was unconvinced by this analysis, as Caramel was serving up the roffles big time. However, as the film goes on it takes some of the things that it was previously playing for laughs (Sporty older lady who still likes to act like a young thing, neighbourhood crazy old lady, etc.) and suggests the kind of quiet despair that can lurk in the hearts of such people or those who care for them.

The plot, such as it is, follows four women who work in a hairdressing salon, somewhere in Beirut (probably east Beirut, as a priest shows up to bless it at one point). The women are not all co-religionists, but this does not matter as it is not that kind of film. They each have their little story – one of them is the aforementioned sporty older lady, one is about to get married (complications ensue from this), one is having an affair with a married man (who is also an arsehole), and one of the women is implicitly A LASERBEAM. There are a couple of other characters hovering around the fringes of the salon, one of which is a gormless but loveable motorcycle cop who has a bit of a thing for one of the hairdressers but is a bit too *shy* to do anything about it. Some of the characters' stories resolve, others do not. The End.

I suppose what makes this film appealing is firstly that the characters are pretty engaging. The setting in a strange foreign country is also fascinating. Beirut in many ways looks like any modern city, but the mores of the people there seem very different to our own. This is particularly noticeable in the whole world of sexual politics, where women and men engaging in sexual activity outside marriage is a really big deal. This applies to the Christian characters as much as to the Muslim ones; an involved scene of comedy of awfulness revolves around the (Christian) woman who is having an affair trying to book a room in a hotel for them to get it on in, with it seemingly being impossible for an unmarried couple to do this anywhere more reputable than somewhere like the E-Z Sleep Hotel*.

The lesbian subplot is also interesting, partly in terms of how oblique it is in the film and partly in terms of how it suggests lesbianism might work in the Arab world. No one in the film ever refers to lesbianism or women being attracted to women or anything like that, but unless you are a complete idiot it would be hard to mistake the meaningful glances between the least girlie hairdresser and one of her clients as anything other than Sapphic attraction. The relationship initially consists of nothing more than the hairdresser washing the client's (beautiful) hair while exchanging meaningful looks, though it is almost like the haircut the client receives at the film's end is a form of consummation. I wonder is that how far things go in inter-woman love in today's middle east? One thing you hear anecdotally about male homosexuality in the Arab world is how there are a surprisingly large number of homosexual acts taking place, even if there is not much awareness or approval of such a thing as a homosexual identity. Maybe things are like this for the ladies as well.

So that's it for Caramel, really. I recommend it if you like films with interesting people in them. One funny thing that happens at the end is the aforementioned haircut the implicitly lesbian hairdresser gives to her client – she transforms her amazingly beautiful long hair into what can only be described as a pretty manky mullet. Such is love.

*Not its real name; libel laws make me wary of naming what is famously Beirut's skankiest hotel, advertised in guidebooks as "not suitable for solo women travellers or people of a sensitive disposition". I don't know if the hotel in the film is actually the same one, but it had a distinctly "Don't believe the rumours!" quality.


Ammonite said...

Love gives you a mullet. This gives me a lot to think about.

Did I ever tell you the story about the 'motel' we were booked into after our wedding? Long story short: it was a crack den.

ian said...

I think the mullet was like branding - no one will want her now.