In Leyla Bouzid’s A Tale of Love and Desire, things get complicated for eighteen-year-old Ahmed (Sami Outabali) when love and desire become intertwined. The film is screening in person at the London Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival. The film is still seeking distribution in North America and the UK.
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In Leyla Bouzid’s second feature, A Tale of Love and Desire, things get complicated for eighteen-year-old Ahmed (Sami Outabali) — the Parisian child of Algerian refugees who has never been to Algeria — when love and desire become intertwined. Bouzid’s thoughtful, sensitive, and sensual first feature, As I Open My Eyes, was the story of a young Tunisian woman coming up against patriarchy and government oppression as she tries to find her place in the world; A Tale of Love and Desire is a much more internal story. That’s not to say that Ahmed doesn’t face casual racism and classism or the pressures to conform to two different standards of masculinity — a French, sexually liberal, cosmopolitan ideal and a more conservative but virile Arabic ideal. But none of these forces are actually stopping him from getting what he wants when it comes to love and desire. They’re just causing immense inner turmoil.
Ahmed is a smart, sensitive, and introverted young man, who is caught between two worlds he can never fully be a part of: the white, middle-class society of his university, La Sorbonne; and the Algerian culture to which he was born and is identified with on sight, but which he has never had the opportunity to fully connect with. His full on identity crisis is sparked when he meets Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a Tunisian woman who is studying literature with him at La Sorbonne. After Ahmed shoots her many longing looks across hallways and rooms (and Bouzid’s frames), they finally talk to each other on the metro. Farah’s voluminous curls take up more space than Ahmed ever allows himself; he curls his body around the pole on the metro, avoiding eye contact as they talk, while her stance is open.
Farah is, in many ways, Ahmed’s opposite. She’s extroverted and sexually experienced, strongly connected to her Tunisian and Arabic origins, and unafraid to take up space. At a bookstore, picking up their assigned reading, Farah is fascinated by the modernity of the erotic Arab literature she discovers from hundreds of years past. Ahmed is uncomfortable and embarrassed, and reacts by getting judgemental and cruel. New to the city, but excited to explore it, Farah asks Ahmed to show her around; as someone who grew up in the banlieues, he suddenly finds himself adrift as a presumed Parisian who has never really explored Paris at all. Their attraction to each other, even before they talk to one another, is immediate. But it’s their conversations and budding friendship that really challenges Ahmed. Farah has reconciled the contradictory aspects of her identity while Ahmed has barely even managed to acknowledge them to himself.
The opening scene of the film is a particularly apt series of images that represent where Ahmed is at in his life. Ahmed’s naked body is glimpsed only in fragments, through the blurred glass of the shower, evoking someone who refuses to be looked at too closely. After, Bouzid captures water droplets falling from his hair onto his naked back as he dries off. It’s a hugely sensual image but also a somewhat standoffish one. We soon learn that Ahmed is more comfortable with jacking off to porn than exploring his sexuality with another person he actually likes. To explore sex with Farah would mean reconciling sex, intimacy, and desire and what they mean to him, his identity, and his feelings for Farah. His unwillingness to deal with this leads him to repeatedly send Farah mixed and hurtful signals. For his oral exam on an work of erotic Arab poetry, he chooses to interpret the text as being about the impossibility of acting on desire when love is involved because it suits his fears; his professor points out that that this is hardly the only reading, and he failed to acknowledge the alternatives.
Bouzid’s film is, in many ways, an unconventional sexual coming-of-age story. It’s about a young man dealing with having sex for the first time, and about all the hangups he has and feels like he shouldn’t have. It’s also a very internal story: Ahmed’s inarticulacy when it comes to his feelings is his whole problem. But lingering closeups on Outabli, coupled with his uncomfortable body language allows us to understand Ahmed better than he does himself. His insecurities are not about his virility or attractiveness or ability to perform in the bedroom; instead, it’s about identity, something we often see in stories about women but rarely in those about men.
Ahmed’s romance with Farah is one of fits and starts, of her sometimes seemingly infinite patience because she knows he’s a sweet guy who is struggling, and how his confusion gets them both hurt. What A Tale of Love and Desire gets is that first love is as much about what doesn’t happen as what does. It’s significant that the turning point in Ahmed’s story comes in a conversation with his father, rather than in any interaction with Farah. His father has been emotionally and physically closed off, and so this is what Ahmed has learned as the standard for male behaviour. By finding a way to bridge that gap, getting his father to open up and opening up to him, he’s able to take steps toward figuring out who he is.
For all its thoughtfulness and many pleasures, A Tale of Love and Desire does fall into some frustrating tropes of coming-of-age stories. It’s rather convenient that Ahmed is studying literature and that the texts he studies in class end up being directly relevant to his personal crisis. But at least A Tale of Love and Desire introduces Ahmed, and many audiences, to texts that they would not have otherwise encountered from centuries past in the Arab world. For all of the film’s modernity, it’s also a reminder that love and desire are timeless struggles in stories; Bouzid is merely telling the twenty-first century version of them. Most disappointingly, though, is that one small step toward understanding his identity is rewarded with what many French films, like Mes jours de gloire (Antoine de Bary, 2019), consider the ultimate statement of male healing: finally having sex.
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