The multiply blessed young Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki looks sublimely like Anna Magnani crossed with Penelope Cruz. Labaki also has the brass and the chops not only to direct her first film but also to star in it as a Beirut beautician stewing miserably in a dead-end affair with a married man while, all around her, a multigenerational bevy of colleagues and clients copes with lesbian urges, menopause, and senior dating in a society hostile to all three. Beauty-parlor romantic comedy has been done to death and beyond, but what Caramel lacks in originality is redeemed by its exuberant sensuality and astute commentary on the way Lebanese women sit uncomfortably in the crosshairs of their country's clash between patriarchal tradition and Westernized modernity. Labaki shows an assured hand with her mostly nonpro actors, most of whom were cast for the resemblance between their lives and the women they play. There's more cheek than chic in this Frenchified bit of fluff, but also something deeper and more poignant about its dilemmas, which include a Muslim bride-to-be agonizing over whether to get her broken hymen stitched by a plastic surgeon in time for a virgin wedding. Labaki treats her characters with wistful tenderness, raucous practicality, and enough romantic chutzpah to give almost every woman a moment, at least, when she can have exactly what she wants.
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