Dir: Nadine Labaki. Lebanon-France. 2007. 96mins.

Nadine Labaki's debut feature is an assured and wonderfully engaging romantic comedy. At times, its storytelling is soft-centred and self-indulgent, but there is enough barbed humour and ironic observation here to counterbalance the more syrupy moments. Caramel's status as festival crowd pleaser was quickly established after its premiere in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight. Since then, it has been chosen as Lebanon's Oscar candidate while racking up sales. It is a film which, with astute marketing, could have a mainstream appeal and attract audiences who have never knowingly been near a Lebanese movie before. Acquisition of remake rights also look likely. Whatever else, it will also be an eyecatching calling card for its glamorous writer-director-star, best known hitherto for directing Arab music videos.

The title hints at what makes the film so distinctive. It refers to a way of removing unwanted bodily hair by using a heated concoction of sugar, water and lemon juice. This can be a painful process. Layale (Labaki) is the torturer-in-chief, ready to apply the treatment to the clients who pass through the Beirut beauty salon where she works. Though the film may be a celebration of camaraderie and friendship, there are plenty of scenes in which the characters' insecurities and petty jealousies are as ruthlessly exposed as their physical flaws.

Men are largely kept on the periphery. If they do stray into the action, they are liable to be teased. (When a good-looking police officer with an Omar Sharif-like moustache visits the salon, we know instantly that his whiskers will be plucked.) They are a source of both fascination and torment for the women. Layale is besotted with a married man. Nisrine has to go to absurd lengths to hoodwink her husband to be. Even the elderly Aunt Rose begins to behave like a lovestruck teenager when a distinguished, silver-haired gentleman comes to be measured for a suit.

Despite the current upheavals in Lebanon, politics aren't mentioned. Shooting had finished before the war in the summer of 2006. The image presented of Beirut is upbeat and cheerful. (The occasional sequences of police officers or soldiers on the streets, harassing the locals, are the only hints of the problems beyond the self-enclosed world of the beauty parlor.)

Even so, without labouring her point, Labaki makes it clear that this a patriarchal society in which young women are not supposed to have sex before or outside marriage. Some brides to be have to go to extreme lengths to convince their new husbands that they are virgins. (Pigeon blood and stitches are behind the ruse shown here.) If they are having extramarital affairs, they will struggle to find a hotel room where they can meet in secret.

The structure is episodic and, at times, akin to soap opera. As a director, Labaki is so busy showing us the women's romantic dilemmas or eavesdropping on their gossip that the narrative frequently threatens to stall. In the end, the film-maker uses the time-honoured device of a wedding as a way of bringing the yarn to a climax. This big, communal set-piece in which everyone comes together feels a little contrived. Nonetheless, given the richness of the dialogue and observation, the lack of storytelling momentum is seldom a problem.

Labaki delights in contrasting the beautiful young women in the salon with the eccentric old ladies who live next door - Aunt Rose and the harridan-like sister whom she takes care of. There are plenty of visual gags involving false teeth or hair styling that has gone awry. Most of the actors are non-professionals but they approach their roles with so much zest that their performances seem more fresh than clumsy. As in some of Almodovar's films (for instance, Volver), Labaki celebrates the resilience and humour of women of different generations and ages.

The film-makers pay exhaustive attention to detail, whether the movie magazines that customers read in the salon, the posters plastered on the walls, the painstaking way Labaki paints her toenails or the very particular techniques used for beautifying the women. In one of the most poignant scenes - which plays like a short film in its own right - we see Layale go to absurd lengths to transform a shoddy hotel room into a romantic setting for a tryst with her lover. As she scrubs grime from the bathroom floor and beats the mattress, we already guess that he won't turn up. Here, the pathos of the scene is undercut by humour. Meanwhile, the more self-consciously comic scenes invariably have a jarring and emotional undertow.

Production companies/backers
Les Films des Tournelles (Fr)
Les Films de Beyrouth (Leb)
Roissy Films (Fr)
Sunnyland (Leb)
Arte France Cinema (Fr)
Fonds Sud Cinema (Fr)
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (Fr)
Centre National de la Cinematographie (Fr)
Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (Fr)
Agence de la Francophonie (Fr)
Ministère de la Culture du Liban (Leb)
La Cinefondation (Fr)

International sales
Roissy Films
(33) 1 53 53 50 50

Middle East sales
Sabbah Media Corporation
(961) 1 378 000

Anne-Dominique Toussaint

Nadine Labaki
Jihad Hojeily
Rodney Al Haddad

Yves Sehnaou

Production design
Cynthia Zahar

Laure Gardette

Khaled Mouzanar

Main cast
Nadine Labaki
Yasmine Al Masri
Joanna Moukarzel
Gisèle Aouad
Siham Haddad