Lebanese language pic eyes French record


PARIS -- "Caramel" is the flavor of the month in France. The female-skewing Lebanese comedy last week drew 160,000 admissions in its first week of release and could be on course to become the biggest Arabic-language hit ever in Gaul.

"It's absolutely incredible. Especially given that it's a first film with no stars," says Jean Labadie, head of French distributor Bac Films.

Directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki, who also stars, "Caramel" centers on a Beirut beauty salon where women of different ages and religions discuss their lives and loves. The intimate exchanges cover the problems of having a married lover, coming to terms with same-sex attraction and deciding whether to have surgery to restore "virginity" ahead of marriage.

"We promoted it as a film about women and one that doesn't talk about war. It evokes the situation in Beirut today with a lot more subtlety than a lot of other recent Lebanese films," Labadie says. "It talks about women in a manner that women find very funny but that men do too. It's what you call a date movie."

"Caramel" was produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint through her Paris-based banner Les Films des Tournelles. The $1.5 million film screened in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at May's Festival de Cannes, which Toussaint says was a "huge" boost for its profile. Sales company Roissy Films closed about 30 deals in the space of a week.

In an audacious release strategy by Bac, "Caramel" came out on 182 prints in France, an approach Toussaint praised. "(Labadie) saw that he had to bring the film out of the world cinema ghetto," she says.

Last year, Bac enjoyed considerable success with another Arabic-language film, "The Yacoubian Building." It sold 150,000 theatrical tickets and racked up strong numbers on DVD. With favorable press and good word-of-mouth, Labadie says he is hopeful that "Caramel" can top the record for the biggest-selling Arabic film in France, held by Youssef Chahine's "Destiny," which sold about 600,000 tickets in 1997.

"Caramel" was released Aug. 8 in Lebanon, where it looks set to break the 100,000-admissions barrier, a major hit on home turf. But will France be the only Western market with a taste for "Caramel"? Toussaint thinks not.

"It's a comedy, but it also has a strong emotional base," she says. "The film is very anchored in its specific culture, but at the same time it's universal."

"Caramel" begins its North American career with a slot next month at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of a planned U.S. release through Roadside Attractions. Those involved with the film hope it will be Lebanon's contender for a foreign-language Oscar nomination, which already looks to be a good bet.