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Lebanese director’s full-length debut sweet as its title, but not as sticky

Release Date: Feb. 1
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writers: Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad
Cinematographer: Yves Sehnaoui
Starring: Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri, Gisele Aouad, Joanna Moukarzel, Sihame Haddad
Studio/Run Time: Roadside Attractions, 95 mins.

Caramel focuses on ?ve con?icted women in the emotional crucible of a Beirut beauty salon. Nisrine is engaged to a man who doesn’t know she’s not a virgin. Jamale is a struggling actress. Rima secretly likes girls; Rose has forsaken romance to care for her mentally ill sister (played with mischievous aplomb by Aziza Semaan); and Layale (writer/director Nadine Labaki) is having an affair with a feckless married man. The ?lm is compulsively watchable, thanks to the radiantly amateur cast. Caramel is also poignant when these women’s desires founder on the crags of a youth-obsessed, patriarchal society, like when we learn that the age-obsessed Jamale is faking her menstrual cycles. But the narrative feels strangely inert. The con?icts don’t arise and resolve within the plot; they bookend it, and only Layale’s is meaningfully resolved, an incongruous structure in an otherwise resolutely traditional staging. This uneasy mixture of ?lmic classicism and narrative stagnancy is exacerbated by Khaled Mouzanar’s Philip Glass-lite score, which always tells us exactly how to feel, as if the characters weren’t already doing so themselves.

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