After successfully debuting at Cannes this year Leyla Bouzid’s A Tale of Love and Desire (Une histoire d’amour et de désir) makes its way to the UK’s French Film Festival. Sami Outalbali leads this subtly erotic coming of age film following a young French-Algerian student navigating romanticism, love and sex in his first year at university. Littered with ideals of romance inspired by the character’s love of classic poetry, an introspective battle begins between the young man’s desires and anxieties regarding sex.
In Bouzid’s feature, Ahmed (Outalbali) lives in the suburbs of Paris and is beginning his studies as a literature student at university. Painfully shy, he meets Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) and is quick to fall for his classmate – building deep rooted feelings for her. Yet Ahmed is plagued by anxieties and whilst being overwhelmed with desire, he is desperately trying to resist it at the detriment of his newfound relationship.
Opening with a slow sensuous shower scene capturing Ahmed before he embarks on his first day at University, we get a sense of the sumptuous lingering romanticism in store. Filmmaker Leyla Bouzid and cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert stay true to this promise, with A Tale of Love and Desire capturing romantic and sensual longing throughout – from the quiet yet pulse-racing tension between Ahmed and Farah from early exchanges about Arabic erotic literature in bookshops, to more intimate moments between the pair. Yet these intimate moments are often cut short by the introspective anxieties of Ahmed.
Ahmed is quiet, observant and painfully shy – a contrast to the free-spirited Farah. Both hailing from Arabic backgrounds – Farah, Tunisian, and Ahmed, Algerian, – yet both experience very different styles of university life. Ahmed struggling to fit in in the swarms of students (best exemplified in a New Year party scene), whilst Farah is quick to make friends and confidently throw herself into university life. Ahmed struggles to embrace the contemporary world of casual sex and drinking that university often brings – with the young man even uncomfortable upon hearing Farah and a friend having a frank sexual discussion. Despite these differing backgrounds and experiences, there is a spark between the pair – carried by excellent performances from Outalbali and Belhajamor – the former making an introspective, quiet character impressively transparent to viewers in a subtle and unforced manner.
Despite unable to decipher the social cues of university life, Ahmed finds passion in literature with titles such as The Declension of Love Poetry in Arabic and The Perfumed Garden namechecked. The battle between devouring the romantic and erotic ideals of these texts, yet struggling to access these emotions and desires in reality is part of the turmoil faced by Ahmed. Further conflict comes from Ahmed’s concerns about being distanced from his own culture – partly stemming from his inability to read Arabic and the pressure of cultural traditions (such as no sex or alcohol). Moments of visual flair – such as hallucinogenic dream sequences (one a giallo inspired nightmare) – capture Ahmed’s handling of these internalised anxieties in a punchy, asserting fashion.
Ahmed’s fear of sexual intimacy results in his running from Farah on numerous occasions, with the young man navigating between lust (Ahmed pleasures himself to a book of romantic poetry given to him by Farah) and subsequent disgust. Outalbali impeccably captures this confusing dichotomy – he is unclear of why he makes these calls – frustrated by his own fear and decision to run from these impulses.
This slow-burner excels through Sami Outalbali’s complex, understated performance whilst filmmaker Leyla Bouzid has crafted an emotionally intelligent and sensual coming of age feature.