Caramel (dir Nadine Labaki)
A delightful film about the bonds between women and set in a beauty parlour, this plays as a kind of Lebanese Almodovar picture, substituting Beirut for Barcelona. The writer-director Labaki also plays the lead, Layale, a Christian who is having an affair with a married man and putting her life on hold for him. Her colleagues are equally troubled, "living a lie" as one character puts it. Nisrine, a Muslim, is about to marry but is not a virgin and takes extreme measures to keep this fact from her fiancé. Rima has an unspoken passion for a client. And Jamale, another client, is not dealing with the ageing process.
However, the film does not play like a drama, but a comedy. The atmosphere in the salon is full of squabbles and banter. Layale has a flirtatious running feud with a traffic cop. Jamale goes to disastrous auditions and next-door neighbour Rose has to keep an eye on her mentally fragile sister Lili. Some of these situations do turn dramatic and even sad, but the film's world is one of warmth, both emotional and lighting-wise, and the women are all engaging. Even the wife who is the rival for Layale is drawn sympathetically. Given the subsequent bombing by Israel, the peacetime world depicted here may seem out of step with current events but Labaki feels it gives the world a political element she didn't expect.
By contrast, At the River (dir Eva Neymann) is about the ties that bind, whether one wants them to or not, as an aged Ukrainian mother and daughter play out a love-hate relationship in their shabby apartment before taking a day out to continue hostilities on the river. It is painfully slow-going and laughs are thin on the ground. Even more puzzlingly, the whole middle section is given over to minor characters who appear and disappear without explanation as to why they are there. A most peculiar film.