Writer and Director: Leyla Bouzid
The gap between poetic love and the, often less, enchanting reality is the subject of Leyla Bouzid’s second film A Tale of Love and Desire screening in the Love strand of the London Film Festival. Exploring multicultural concepts and representations of human devotion and eroticism distilled through the lives of two literary teenagers studying at the Sorbonne, Bouzid’s film gently explores the promise of first love and the fear of consummation.
Ahmed is a French-Algerian student living with his first-generation, working-class parents when he meets Farah, a beautiful Tunisian girl taking the same classes in Arabic poetry. Despite Ahmed’s shyness, Farah makes her interest known as the pair meet at a series of parties and social outings but despite getting close, Ahmed withdraws from Farah, leaving her uncertain and embarrassed.
Bouzid film has some interesting points to make about the encouragement to quickly satisfy desires and the value of delay while the central couple get to know one another better. Wrapped-up in this are concepts of poetic translation that build high-minded concepts of lust and carnality which the fearful and inexperienced Ahmed cannot live up to.
It is still unusual to see a young man at the centre of these quandaries and Bouzid flips the gender stereotypes convincingly, showing the viewer Ahmed’s confused perspective where both the ancient poets and porn influence his attitudes to sex, leaving him stranded in the middle, unsure not only about what his body wants but also his emotional readiness for a relationship. That this causes him to behave dismissively to Farah is sympathetic shown while Bouzid equally reflects on the mixed messages he sends to her.
Farah’s own balance of love and desire are treated with equal care, and despite wanting to move faster than Ahmed, Bouzid suggests that Farah’s feelings are equally valid and normal, arising as they do from the natural proximity to Ahmed. She’s not quite as fully formed as he is, there to be interesting, exotic and adored, but her interpretation of his behaviour feels credible.
Sami Outalbali gives Ahmed a innocence that makes his character appealing to Farah but also slightly incompetent in his management of that attraction as an 18-year-old still figuring out what he wants. That he is also nervous about public speaking feeds into an outward privacy that Outalbali suggests, particularly as the literary course awakens an under-developed interest in his cultural heritage in a performance that explores all kinds of identity formation.
Zbeida Belhajamor is particularly good at expressing Farah’s wounded ego as Ahmed rejects her in several subtle ways. There is an everywoman feel to her characterisation that makes her position highly recognisable and compassionate, but Belhajamor adds a strain of hopeful determination that persists with the boy despite the pain he causes her.
A Tale of Love and Desire could do more to explore the social and political context of racism and the outsider status that plagues Ahmed and his family in an attempt to understand his drive for intellectual rather than physical fulfilment, particularly in a slightly overlong 1 hour and 45-minute running time. Nonetheless, Bouzid has created an interesting discussion about teenage desire and the value of pleasures delayed.
A Tale of Love and Desire is screening at the London Film Festival.