Directed by Leyla Bouzid, A Tale of Love and Desire (OV: Une histoire d’amour et de désir) stars Sami Outalbali (best known for his role in Sex Education) and Zbeida Belhajamor as Ahmed and Farah respectively. The two are literature students studying at the Sorbonne, Paris, and despite sharing an instant attraction, their differing personalities threaten their relationship before they become official.
Throughout the film, Bouzid paints Paris and her narrative with a modern bohemian vibe comprising a haze of late night parties, alcohol, sex and drugs – most things that Ahmed stays clear of. He is not entirely religious and is unclear about his sexual experience (through awkward conversations with his friends) but his deterrent behaviour towards intimacy feeds his anxiety and flakiness towards others. Therefore, his somewhat cold attitude prevents him from opening up to the prospect of romance – something that is made more difficult by his attraction to Farah, which seems to be openly reciprocated.
As they begin their tentative studies, both of them delve into classic erotic Arab literature that not only stirs Ahmed’s physical desires but also implicitly questions his background and identity. Despite his Algerian heritage, his parents did not teach him Arabic (in contrast to the Tunisian Farah, who can write and speak the language) and believes that he doesn’t believe that he should be in such a prestigious school such as the Sorbonne. This drives a wedge not only between them but also Ahmed’s friends, who have manual jobs or adhere to certain relationships, resulting in a personal dilemma of what is expected of him between what feels right to him.
Amid A Tale of Love and Desire‘s conventional narrative, there is a lack of clarity regarding the attraction between them due to their different personalities and backgrounds: Ahmed is part of a large family and lives in a banlieue while everyone is watching and commenting on him being at school. In contrast, Farah is separated from her family and therefore has a free-spirited sense of independence and chooses to indulge in the Parisian nightlife. This lack of affection also doesn’t explain Ahmed’s toxic masculinity, which manifests through his occasional possessiveness and jealousy of Farah – especially when other guys flirt with her, which enhances his insecurity and on-screen dislikability as a character.
Ironically, the film is driven by its sensuality, which is reinforced by the softly whisper narrations of the texts and the vivid colours incorporated in its visuals. Meanwhile, Outalbali and Belhajamor command the film with their understated and nuanced performances that lift Bouzid’s sparse dialogue and grounded direction, which offers a slow-burning tone that guides the audiences throughout their tentative relationship towards its tender outcome.
Overall, A Tale of Love and Desire is a sensitive and contemplative romance that combines intellect and simmering passion. The narrative is slightly dragged out but thanks to Outalbali and Belhajamor’s on-screen chemistry, the film is a rare love story for modern audiences.
Director: Leyla Bouzid
Stars: Sami Outalbali, Zbeida Belhajamor
Runtime: 103 minutes