Sweetness And Light

Forget the four spiteful mannequins tottering around New York, the real Sex & The City is happening in hot, dusty Beirut where five women bond over blow-dries in a run-down beauty salon. Written and directed by debutant Nadine Labaki, who also plays shop-owner Layale, Caramel (Sukkar Banat) takes its title from the boiled sugar used to remove unwanted body hair from pernickety patrons, but fits just as well with the golden, sticky tone of the film itself.

Labaki’s Layale is a modern Lebanese woman still caught in the gaps of a chancing society. Outwardly successful, she lives at home with her parents, sharing a room with her younger brother. Although beautiful and self-assured, she is having a greasy affair with a married man, oblivious to the attentions of the local traffic policeman, who takes every chance he can get to talk to her. Her colleagues in the shop include Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), about to marry into a conservative Muslim family, but frightened to tell her fiancée that she is no longer a virgin. Then there’s Rima, a hip young shampooist whose eyes take on an unmistakable glisten when her favourite customer – another woman – walks through the door. Across the street there’s the seamstress Rose, a woman in her sixties looking after her elderly sister and gently deflecting the charismatic attentions of a debonair older gentleman. Their friend and customer Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is a divorced mother of two and part-time actress, fighting a losing battle to stay young and beautiful.

These are messy, convincing lives, and Labaki shows a steady hand in guiding us through each of them satisfactorily, with one eye on their emotions and another on the world they are travelling through, drawing on her love of the city, her keen eye for detail and an instinctive desire to tell a rounded story. Whether it’s the novelty of the culture, the easy charm of the mostly non-professional performers or the subtle but cutting threads of political comment, Labaki’s film manages to overcome its familiarity (as Steel Magnolias, mainly) to be something utterly beguiling and genuinely touching, lacking any self-aware sentimentality or sneaky over-romanticising. A gorgeous scene when a gentleman admirerer watches Layala on the phone and mouths his own romantic responses, distills the whole into an essence; clever, arresting and heart-soaringly amorous. Of the three films from first-time directors in Irish cinemas this weekend, Labaki’s is by some distance the most assured, most humane and consistently surprising.

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