There's something strangely reassuring about the universality of Caramel, Lebanon's official Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Film 2007. Outside of some concrete cultural differences, the film's motley aggregation of lovelorn strivers and rudderless career girls aren't terribly dissimilar from the sass-talking denizens of Ice Cube's Barbershop movies. Though much more than mere geography separates Caramel's Beirut from Barbershop's Chicago, they're both full of everyday people just struggling to get by while juggling work, relationships, and family.
Caramel documents the romantic foibles of a group of women who work in or frequent a lively hair salon that doubles as an important social center. There's a bride-to-be who resorts to desperate measures to keep her future husband from learning that he isn't marrying a virgin. (Come to think of it, that plotline probably isn't going to come up in a Barbershop movie.) There's a gorgeous hair stylist locked in a doomed relationship with a married man, which keeps her from noticing a lovestruck cop who cunningly hides his good looks behind an unflattering mustache. A pretty, cranky tomboy is attracted to another bride-to-be, while an older tailor deals with the attentions of an elegant French gentleman of questionable sanity. And then there's her crazy comic-relief mother, who talks in an agitated, comically high-pitched Donald Duck squawk.
Caramel introduces lots of conflicts and subplots without resolving any of them, which is much of its meandering, laidback appeal. At its best, Caramel boasts a quietly engaging slice-of-life casualness. The film's gauzy sumptuousness nicely echoes the ripe, furtive sensuality of salons where the practiced touch of a skilled hairstylist boasts a sneaky erotic charge. It buzzes with soap-opera situations handled with the low-key naturalism and laconic rhythms of a superior art film. Caramel is basically a chick flick for the smart set, but the oft-disparaged subgenre would be a lot more respected if every film pitched at women boasted Caramel's unforced charm.