‘A Tale of Love and Desire’ (‘Une histoire d’amour et de désir’): Film Review | Cannes 2021

Leyla Bouzid’s feature follows a young French-Algerian man in Paris as he tries to reconcile his values with his lust.

A Tale of Love and Desire opens sensuously: a silhouette behind an opaque shower door, beads of water dotting olive-bronze shoulders, the raspy sound of a towel rubbing against the body. This is Ahmed (Sami Outabali), an 18-year-old French-Algerian university student getting ready for his first day of classes at the Sorbonne. He is bright, reserved, incredibly indecisive and, we find out eventually, has never had sex. Whether he wants to or not is the question at the center of Tunisian writer-director Leyla Bouzid’s (As I Open My Eyes) languorous and subtly erotic coming-of-age film.

Stories of first sexual encounters brim with narrative potential. Love and desire reveal who we want to be, inadvertently shape our politics and have the potential to destabilize the stories we tell ourselves to keep afloat. At least that’s what happens to Ahmed, who finds himself stupefied and flushed the minute he lays eyes on Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a big-haired, dangerously cool Tunisian girl with whom he shares a handful of classes.

A Tale of Love and Desire

The Bottom Line

Seductive and introspective.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Cast: Sami Outalbali, Zbeida Belhajamor, Diong-Kéba Tacy, Aurélia Petit, Mahia Zrouki
Director-screenwriter: Leyla Bouzid

1 hour 42 minutes

It’s easy to capture the frenzy of a new fling or the seductive meeting of two bodies; what’s more difficult, and what A Tale of Love and Desire does quite well, is study the inner tensions that accompany early sexual experiences — when the heart, mind and body refuse to be in sync — without becoming overly cerebral.

Silence defines Ahmed and Farah’s early run-ins because Ahmed, stunned by Farah’s beauty, taken by her energy, can’t bring himself to speak to her. A meet-cute eventually happens on the metro: Farah approaches Ahmed from the other side of the train car and asks if he too is heading to the bookstore to buy the required reading for their courses. Ahmed answers affirmatively, his mumbles and avoidance of eye contact betraying his nerves.

Moments like these, in which Ahmed struggles to articulate himself in the face of Farah’s direct attitude and honesty, make up most of the duo’s interactions. Outalbali (Sex Education) and Belhajamor nail the anxious energy and clumsy body language characteristic of new love. Raised eyebrows, stolen glances and the brushing of shoulders heighten the passion between the two.

But there is apprehension, mostly on Ahmed’s part. He and Farah represent different parts of the Arab diaspora. Curiosity surrounding the other’s experience becomes one of the more interesting threads in their relationship — one I wish the film explored even more directly. Ahmed, born in France, lives in estate housing in the Parisian suburbs and works part time for a moving company owned by his conservative cousin, Karim (Bellamine Abdelmalek). His shifts entail lugging heavy boxes across Paris and fending off jabs from his friend Saidou (Diong-Kéba Tacu), who hides his lack of sexual experience by teasing others.

Within his community, Ahmed is seen as the most likely to do something different. His friends and his father project their dreams onto him — he will be a teacher, they say, or a writer. The weight of their expectations, and the pressure of cultural traditionalism (no sex, no alcohol), prove too heavy to carry. His troubles at school only add to the burden. The rules of the university are indecipherable to him. The women are elusive. He knows nothing about Paris. He feels like he does not belong.

Farah, on the other hand, holds a less fraught relationship to her identity and her environment. Born and raised in Tunisia, she does not feel lost in the sea of students, or intimidated by the university setting. She lives liberally, open to exploration and eager to make the most of her short time in Paris. She wants Ahmed to show her around, to go dancing, to eat and drink with her friends.

Literature helps bridge the chasm of their identities. The biggest gift of A Tale of Love and Desire is its built-in reading list, revealed throughout Ahmed and Farah’s courtship. As they search for texts for their 12th-Century Arabic Literature class, the pair come across a table of Arabic poetry. The camera pans to a few of the titles — The Declension of Love Poetry in Arabic, The Perfumed Garden — before returning to the couple leafing through some copies. And that’s within the first 15 minutes.

Over the course of the film, and the semester, their professor, Anne Morel (Aurélia Petit), encourages them to read and embrace this ravishing literature of the past. “Desire, desire, and yet more desire,” she says to the sparsely populated lecture hall on the first day of class. “Is that not what literature is all about?”

Indeed. It is also what love is about, and Bouzid illustrates the relationship between literature and love in refreshing ways. Daydream and nightmare sequences — Farah’s hands unbuttoning Ahmed’s shirt and caressing his chest; an unknown figure stabbing Ahmed in the neck — intensify the film’s quiet eroticism and tension.

The more deeply Ahmed falls in love with Farah, the shakier his world becomes. He vacillates between overwhelming lust and painful disgust as he battles himself and his desires. Partway through the film, Ahmed, on the verge of sleeping with Farah, abruptly leaves his lover’s apartment. He stomps a few feet outside of her building then stops. Will he turn around and return to the warmth of her bed or will he make his way home? Visibly pained by his indecision, unclear on the right choice, ashamed of his own yearnings, Ahmed plops down onto the sidewalk, choosing to do nothing.

In scenes like this, Bouzid doesn’t shy from letting audiences into Ahmed’s messy interiority, enriching the movie as a whole. It’s an edifying and introspective film, with something valuable to say about embracing our most carnal impulses without shame.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production company(ies): Blue Monday Productions
Cast: Sami Outalbali, Zbeida Belhajamor, Diong-Kéba Tacy, Aurélia Petit, Mahia Zrouki
Director-screenwriter: Leyla Bouzid
Producer(s): Sandra da Fonseca
Cinematographer: Sébastien Goepfert
Production designer: Léa Philippon
Costume designer: Céline Brelaud
Editor: Lilian Corbeille
Composer: Lucas Gaudin
Sales: Pyramide

1 hour 42 minutes