A Tale Of Love And Desire

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A Tale Of Love And Desire
"A film that celebrates the joy and fears associated with youthful lust, while exploring ideas of internal cultural conflict, without making it feel tacky or like a diatribe." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

A gentle thrum of eroticism vibrates beneath this warm and unusual take on will they/won’t they romance from Leyla Bouzid right from the film’s opening moments when the camera gracefully but intently observes the naked form of Ahmed (Sami Outalbali) as he takes a shower. Although he is nude, this is shot in such a way that it seems sweet rather than intrusive by cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert, which sets the tone for a film that celebrates the joy and fears associated with youthful lust, while exploring ideas of internal cultural conflict, without making it feel tacky or like a diatribe.

Ahmed is first-generation French, the son of Algerian immigrants, and about to swap the working-class neighbourhood where he lives with his mum, dad and sister for the unfamiliar halls of the Sorbonne. Shy, in general, and even more so in the new environment, his first day in lectures on erotic Arabic poetry bring a real-life frisson when he catches sight of Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), with the camera copying his gaze. Craftily using elements of the poetry in class to act like a mirror to the feeling s of her characters, Bouzid skilfully works her plot so that things feel casual, as Ahmed and Farah fall into conversation on a train and he discovers she’s a Tunisian, studying abroad.

His shyness grows into discomfort, when they head for a bookshop to pick up stuff from their reading lists and Farah jokingly reads out all the various nicknames for a penis from 15th Century Arabic sex manual The Perfumed Garden – the content of which, incidentally, only goes to show there is little new in the world. This distinctive difference between the youngsters is beautifully played by Outalbali and Belhajamor and treated with care by Bouzid, with both she and Farah eyeing Ahmed’s reticence with sympathy.

Farah is comfortable within her own skin in a way that Ahmed isn’t, as he has internalised expectations about his heritage – with the “help” of his fiercely traditional cousin Karim (Bellamine Abdelmalek) – in ways that leave him conflicted. Dream cutaways bring further sensuality, as Ahmed’s subconscious brings his desires to the fore and the jazz-inflected, in places deliberately atonal, saxophone from Lucas Gaudin also feels drawn straight from the young man’s psyche. This film also celebrates language, from the Arabic that Ahmed is sorry he can’t read and which runs right to left – something “normal” for Farah but which also nods to their differences in approach – to the unspoken things that are said on the dancefloor, with someone else or alone. “You’re thinking too much,” Farah tells him, hitting the nail on the head in a film that, while giving all due respect to the intellectual spirit of poesy and restraint, posits that basic physical attraction has just as much right to a fair hearing.

Reviewed on: 03 May 2022
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Ahmed’s world is thrown off-balance when he encounters Farah, newly-arrived from Tunis, who challenges everything he thought he knew.


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