“A Tale of Love and Desire” is the story of a young Arab man in Paris whose first love is accompanied by the discovery of a very different Arab culture than the one he knows, one that is sensual and liberating.
The film screens as part of the Zurich Film Festival’s New World View section, which this year is celebrating a new generation of Tunisian filmmakers.
In making her sophomore feature, Leyla Bouzid says she wanted to tell the story of a young man experiencing his first love and first sexual experience. The idea, she says, was “to propose another vision of masculinity, another kind of story that has not been presented in other films. It’s something that is absent from our cinema.”
Simply broaching the subject is difficult due to modern social customs. “Filming the body of a young Arab man, even if he’s French, how that is seen by others, is already something political: to be interested in his body, his skin, his sexuality is already something that is political.”
At the center of the story is the confrontation between the shy Ahmed (played by Sami Outalbali, who stars in Netflix’s “Sex Education”), a student from an Algerian family who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, and the eroticism of Eastern culture. It is while studying literature at the Sorbonne that he meets the free-spirited Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a young Tunisian woman who has just arrived in Paris.
For many young people of Arab descent who grow up in France, there is a lack of connection with their roots, their language, heritage and history, and that has resulted in a loss of identity for a generation, Bouzid notes. France’s complicated history with Algeria is something that is not really taught in French schools, she adds. Unlike Spanish, Italian and German, Arabic is also not offered in schools as a foreign language.
By contrast, students in Tunisia grow up learning every detail of France’s colonization of North Africa. For many young Tunisians who go to France, the lack of knowledge about that history among many French is apparent, she adds. It’s something she depicts in her film, where it is the cosmopolitan Farah, and 12th-century Arabic literature, that provide Ahmed with an enlightened, progressive understanding of sexuality.
Among the many Arabic writings discussed in the film is the ancient love story of “Layla & Majnun,” about a young couple who fall in love but are unable to be together. The poet Majnun remains madly in love with Layla, forever his great unattainable muse. The story’s enduring impact has been evident over the centuries, not least as the inspiration for Eric Clapton and his classic Derek and the Dominos hit “Layla.”
In Outalbali and Belhajamor, Bouzid found the ideal actors to play the young lovers. “I wanted the film to be really sensual, something that you can feel very deeply, so I needed two actors who really have this sensuality.”
“Sami is very, very different from Ahmed. It’s very fun to see him in ‘Sex Education.’ In real life he’s really not a shy person, but he really understood the film and wanted to play this character very strongly.”
In preparing the shoot, Bouzid shared some films with Outalbali, including James Gray’s “Two Lovers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow, to give him a sense of the reserved character she had in mind.
Bouzid similarly found the perfect female lead in Belhajamor, a Tunisian actress in her first feature film role. “When I met her it was obvious that she could be Farah, that she could make Ahmed mad with love, in the same way Majnun went mad.”
When Outalbali and Belhajamor first met in Paris for a screen test, “there was really strong chemistry between them. There was something happening, so much so that we decided that they would not meet anymore in order to keep that chemistry.”
Bouzid is currently writing her next film project, an as yet untitled drama set in the Tunisian city of Sousse. It will be very different, with an element of mystery, she says.
“A Tale of Love and Desire” is being sold internationally by Pyramide, which also released the film in France.