Caramel is a comical and touching portrait of a sisterly group of women who work at a hair salon in downtown Beirut. The film takes its English title from the warm, soft candy they use instead of wax for hair removal. The main character, Layale -- played by co-writer and director Nadine Labaki -- strives pitifully to realize a dream from a secretive affair with a married man. One co-worker, soon to be married, laments over her dirty little secret: She's not a virgin. Another struggles with the reality of her age while trying to break into acting. The fourth may never know love beyond what her eyes and fingertips dare to reveal.
Sensitively and poignantly told, their individual stories are woven together through the daily drama of the salon. Together, those stories make a statement about female sexuality in a society that stigmatizes it in subtle ways -- so subtle, in fact, that the characters seem only dimly aware of their repression.
With a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors who come across as real and human on screen, the movie portrays Beirut as a city that is modern -- but only on the surface. Women are allowed to look attractive. There are luxury cars on the streets in stark contrast to the battered, old, war-torn city. The locals live with cell phones, neon and television. But when Layale tries to find a place to meet with her lover, it becomes clear that a woman's sex life is everybody's business.
Do not expect militant feminism, however. It's not an angry film, nor is there any anti-male sentiment. (Nor is there any actual sex; the film is rated PG.) Caramel is in places melancholy, but there is some comic relief and the movie ends on a note that is at least optimistic. Guys might find that it moves a bit slow and that there aren't any fights, guns, bombs, car chases or special effects. But the girls will get it.