Set in a beauty salon, 'Caramel' follows the lives, loves and disappointments of six women who are very dissimilar, but find respite from their troubles in the salon. So far, so soap opera, but this romantic comedy is elevated beyond the banal by strong performances, a sense of mystery and an excellent script.
It is also not as sickly sweet as its title suggests, which derives from the method of epilation employed in the salon where the main characters work.
'Caramel' is the feature film debut of Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki. She stars as Layale, the beauty salon's stunning owner, who is carrying on a hopeless affair with a married man and spurning the advances of a handsome police officer who is smitten with her.
Fellow salon worker Nisrine (Al Masri) is engaged and worried what will happen if her Muslim fiancé discovers she isn't a virgin, going to extreme measures to try and hide this from him.
Hairdresser Rima (Moukarzel) is a closet lesbian, unknown to even her friends, and develops a crush on a beautiful, mysterious customer.
A loyal customer of the salon is Jamale (Aouad), a recently divorced actress desperate to appear younger than she is. She provides much of the film's tragic elements, from her attempts to compete with younger actresses, to a highly uncomfortable audition scene.
Aunt Rose (Haddad) is a seamstress who works next to the salon, whose life revolves around caring for her senile older sister Lili (Semaan). An American businessman begins to take an interest in her, returning time and time again to re-hem a pair of trousers that end up flapping above his ankles.
Imbued with a sense of real pain and disappointment, the characters are never easy to predict. A strong sense of hard headedness and resolve keeps them from wallowing in self-pity, as do their strong friendships. Labaki also keeps a level of mystery to the proceedings with a subtlety of storytelling that keeps you interested.
Although the film is set in Beirut, politics are kept to the background, as Labaki concentrates on the city as a place where people continue to live their lives as normally as possible, despite the conflict.
Beautifully shot, with wonderfully rich sets, 'Caramel' is as warm and inviting as the beauty salon it centres around.