It’s only January but I’ve already found one of my ‘films of the year’. This was my second foray into ‘My French Film Festival 2023’. I was hesitant reading the English title but as soon as I realised it was a film directed by Leyla Bouzid I felt in safe hands. I’d enjoyed Ms Bouzid’s first film As I Open My Eyes (Tunisia-France 2015) and I hoped for something similarly entertaining and engaging, which is what I got. The ‘Love and Desire’ of the title refers partly to the study material for a young French university student and also to his own conflicted emotional, cultural and physical struggles as a French-Algerian youth in les banlieues of Paris.
‘Médé’ (‘Ahmed’) sets off for his first day at one of the suburban campuses of the Sorbonne and finds himself in a lecture hall in which the majority of students are young women. He becomes more disturbed when he realises that the course he has signed up for as part of a Literature degree focuses on 12th century Arabic erotic poetry. Médé (Sami Outalbali ) has been brought up by his Algerian parents in a francophone household and he has never learned Arabic. In addition, he’s clearly bright, intelligent and passionate about literature but not yet emotionally equipped to deal with ‘love and desire’. How many of us are at 18? He finds himself sat next to a vivacious young woman who turns out to be a Tunisian ‘overseas student’. This is Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) and she is on her own in Paris and needs someone to show her around. The film’s narrative will follow the exploration of ‘love and desire’ for these two young people, but if this sounds like it will be a conventional teen romance, please think again. There are many ideas involved in this tale, not least what Médé can learn from that 12th century poetry.
As Leyla Bouzid points out in an interview in the Press Notes, a story about love and desire usually focuses on the woman, with the camera using the male gaze, particularly on the woman’s body. She wanted to focus on Médé’s beautiful body and use the camera to experience his physical as well as emotional responses. The film opens with an image that slowly zooms out to reveal we are watching a young man in the shower, seen first through the frosted glass. Médé is the central character and although Farah is the stranger in Paris, it is he who faces more barriers. She wants to enjoy her time in the big city but he has rarely left his own territory and his own community. His is the classic case of the working-class young man uneasy in the middle-class environment of the university and fearful that he might be rejected by his mates in the tower blocks and at the same time conscious that the racism he expects to meet is likely to damage his prospects. He will damage his chances both on the course and with Farah because of his timidity and insecurity.
One of the strengths of the film for me are the classroom sequences in which Farah needs his help because she isn’t au fait with the techniques for critical commentary that the French students have developed over their school careers, but she is capable of throwing herself into the work with enthusiasm and has plenty to teach Médé if he will listen. Leya Bouzid herself studied literature at the Sorbonne but as she says, there was nothing as exciting as the Arabic poetry course which she has invented. It was a nostalgic rush for me to note that Farah recommends Médé should read Omar Khayyám (one of my mother’s favourites) and also The Perfumed Garden, which in the UK in the 1960s was next to the Kama Sutra as an accessible source of erotica. I hadn’t realised that The Perfumed Garden was written by a Tunisian.
Médé’s teacher is Professeur Anne Morel (Aurélia Petit) who gives him good advice about dealing with university life and his own fears and prejudices. Unfortunately, however, Médé is also involved in a family melodrama in which he struggles to find a balance between ‘breaking out’ and really understanding and developing his relationships with his parents, his sister and his mates in the community. There isn’t really the narrative time and space to explore this fully but Bouzid provides enough for us to understand what Médé is struggling with. The film has an open ending in one sense but it is optimistic about the possibility that Médé will succeed in overcoming his problems. Talking properly to his Dad, a journalist who fled Algeria at the time of the Civil War (1999-2001) is a good starting point.
For me, this film works on every level. It’s strengths include the casting and performances of its two young leads, the cinematography of Sébastien Goepfert (who also shot Bouzid’s first film) and the music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, that works very well in conveying aspects of French and Maghrebi culture. I don’t watch Netflix but those of you who do may have seen Sami Outalbali in Sex Education (2020-2021) which seems to have helped the careers of many young actors. Leyla Bouzid actually first saw him in a small part in another film and noted the combination of virility and vulnerability that he was capable of presenting. The film is dependent on this. It is also dependent on the chemistry between the two leads. Zbeida Belhajamor was a Tunisian amateur stage actor when Bouzid found her and saw the potential which is realised in this film (see the Press Notes).
As far as I can see, A Tale of Love and Desire is also available to stream in the UK via Apple and Google Play. I urge you to check it out and I hope that a UK distributor or festival might be persuaded to screen it in cinemas. Something as beautiful and intelligent as this needs to be seen. It’s not only a proper romance melodrama but it also offers an alternative to those banlieue films usually focused on crime.