A Tale of Love and Desire (‘Une histoire d’amour et de désir’): Film Review | Cannes 2021
A story of love and desire it opens sensually: a silhouette behind an opaque shower door, water droplets splattering olive bronze shoulders, the scratchy sound of a towel rubbing against the body. This is Ahmed (Sami Outabali), an 18-year-old French-Algerian university student preparing for his first day of classes at the Sorbonne. He’s bright, reserved, incredibly indecisive, and eventually we find out he’s never had sex. Whether or not you want is the question at the center of the Tunisian writer and director Leyla Bouzid (As I open my eyes) languid and subtly erotic coming-of-age film.
The stories of early 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 us afloat. At least that’s what happens to Ahmed, who is dumbfounded and flushed the moment he sees Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a dangerously cold, long-haired Tunisian with whom he shares a handful of classes.
A story of love and desire
Seductive and introspective.
It is easy to capture the frenzy of a new adventure or the seductive encounter of two bodies; what is more difficult and what A story of love and desire It does this pretty well, is studying the internal tensions that accompany early sexual experiences, when the heart, mind and body refuse to synchronize, without becoming too cerebral.
Silence defines Ahmed and Farah’s first confrontations because Ahmed, amazed by Farah’s beauty, captivated by her energy, does not dare to speak to her. Finally, a cute encounter occurs on the subway: Farah approaches Ahmed from the other side of the train car and asks him if he too is heading to the bookstore to buy the required reading for his courses. Ahmed responds in the affirmative, his murmurs and his avoidance of eye contact betraying his nerves.
Moments like these, where Ahmed struggles to articulate in the face of Farah’s straightforward attitude and honesty, make up the majority of the duo’s interactions. Outalbali (Sex education) and Belhajamor capture the eager energy and awkward body language that are characteristic of new love. The raised eyebrows, the stolen glances and the brush of shoulders intensify the passion between the two.
But there is apprehension, especially on Ahmed’s part. He and Farah represent different parts of the Arab diaspora. The curiosity surrounding each other’s experience becomes one of the most interesting threads in their relationship, one that I wish the movie would explore even more directly. Born in France, Ahmed lives in a suburb in Paris and works part-time for a moving company owned by his conservative cousin, Karim (Bellamine Abdelmalek). His shifts involve carrying heavy boxes around Paris and fending off the beatings of his friend Saidou (Diong-Kéba Tacu), who hides his lack of sexual experience by making fun of others.
Within his community, Ahmed is seen as the one 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 your expectations and the pressure of cultural traditionalism (no sex, no alcohol) are too heavy to bear. His problems at school only add to the burden. The rules of the university are indecipherable to him. Women are elusive. He doesn’t know anything about Paris. You feel like you don’t belong.
Farah, on the other hand, has a less strained relationship with her identity and her surroundings. Born and raised in Tunisia, she does not feel lost in the sea of students or intimidated by the university environment. She lives generously, open to exploration, and eager to make the most of her short time in Paris. He wants Ahmed to show him around, go dancing, eat and drink with his friends.
Literature helps bridge the abyss of their identities. The greatest gift of A story of love and desire is their built-in reading list, revealed during Ahmed and Farah’s courtship. While searching for texts for their 12th century Arabic literature class, the couple come across an Arabic poetry table. The camera scrolls to some of the titles: The decline of love poetry in Arabic, The scented garden – before going back 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 teacher, Anne Morel (Aurélia Petit), encourages them to read and embrace this fascinating literature from the past. “Wish, wish, and even more wish,” he tells the sparsely populated conference room on the first day of class. “Isn’t that what literature is all about?”
Indeed. It’s also what love is all about, and Bouzid illustrates the relationship between literature and love in a refreshing way. Dream and nightmare sequences: Farah’s hands unbuttoning Ahmed’s shirt and stroking his chest; an unknown figure stabbing Ahmed in the neck intensifies the silent eroticism and tension of the film.
The more Ahmed falls in love with Farah, the more unstable his world becomes. He wavers between overwhelming lust and painful disgust as he fights against himself and his desires. Halfway through the film, Ahmed, about to sleep with Farah, abruptly leaves his lover’s apartment. He stomps a few feet outside his building and then stops. Will you turn around and return to the warmth of your bed or will you head home? Visibly sore at his indecision, not clear about the correct choice, ashamed of his own desires, Ahmed flops down on the sidewalk and decides to do nothing.
In scenes like this, Bouzid has no qualms about letting audiences into Ahmed’s messy interiority, enriching the film as a whole.. It’s an uplifting and introspective movie, with something valuable to say about embracing our most carnal urges without shame.
A Tale of Love and Desire