‘Caramel’ Director Nadine Labaki on Remaking the Chick Flick

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Caramel might be Lebanon's answer to Steel Magnolias, but with less schmaltz and a far better script. Nadine Labaki directed and stars in the film — her first as an actress — which centers around the lives and romances of five women working in a Beirut beauty salon. The premise may evoke images of Queen Latifah tossing off one-liners with a blow-dryer in hand, but Caramel throws a few curveballs into the chick-flick mix: One woman falls for a female client, another has an affair with a married man, and a third finds love in the last stages of her life. Labaki spoke to Vulture about her country and her vision.

A lot of aspects of this movie will be familiar to American audiences who watch romantic comedies, but it’s also distinctly Lebanese.
Yes, definitely, but I don’t think it’s distinctly a romantic comedy; it’s a bittersweet story about these different women. It stars Lebanese women, and their way of life is very Lebanese, but the problems that the women deal with are very universal.

That’s particularly problematic for a character named Rima, who falls in love with her female client. Are gay romances unusual in Lebanese cinema?
[Homosexuality] is very secret, which is why I decided to write about that. I see a lot of homosexual women and men who just keep it to themselves, and they lead very unhappy lives where they end up hating their bodies and hating themselves. Many people live with it in secret, but there are also many victims and others who have problems dealing with it in public. It’s the contradiction of the country.

There are a lot of love affairs in the movie, but it seems that the strongest relationship is between the women themselves.
The salon is a place where women are amongst themselves and can feel comfortable. Things happen there that can’t happen outside, because it’s a safe place and there’s a lot of hope. You have a special relationship with the person who makes you more beautiful; they need to see your thoughts and your truths, and you can’t wear a mask with them. You can talk about your life more freely.

With the exception of you and your love interest, Adel Karam, the characters aren’t played by professional actors. How did you find them?
I looked everywhere in life for them, in public places, in restaurants. I had about five or six people scouting for these people I had in my mind. They looked everywhere.

Did the Israeli-Lebanese conflict create problems while you were shooting the film?
It started exactly a week after we finished shooting. It was very surprising. We thought the war was behind us, and we hadn’t imagined that one day we’d be at war again. It was very hard for us, because we had just made a film that talked about life, love, colorful women, while our country was at war. As a filmmaker, you feel like you have a mission, you want to do something for your country. We had a lot of doubts about what the film said, but now I know that it was my mission after all: This is my country, not the clichéd image that people have in their heads of a country at war. It has a message of hope. —Annsley Chapman