The creation and consumption of literature does not lend itself well to film. For years, biopics of famous writers have struggled to dramatize the process, often letting words swirl around the purported genius’ head, or letting their stories manifest in the writer’s life in painfully literal ways. Even harder to dramatize is the more passive act of reading, especially in cases where the literature is meant to be life-changing for a character. This makes the love story between literature students Ahmed (Sami Outalbali) and Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), the couple at the center of Leyla Bouzid’s latest feature, A Tale Of Love And Desire (2021), a bit of a tough sell on its face. But attendees of the Wisconsin Film Festival screening at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Shannon Hall) on Saturday, April 9, at 5:30 pm, can rest assured — miraculously, Bouzid manages to sidestep the usual trappings by creating a deeply felt educational novel where the poetry read aloud is just one part of the network of forces that brings the two characters together.
Ahmed is a working-class student at the Sorbonne, who works for a moving company to support his education and commute into Paris from the suburban estate where he still lives with his parents and sister. On his first day of class, he meets Farah, a Tunisian international student, and sparks fly, evidenced by the fact that he is very, very uncomfortable around her. Ahmed is a virgin with relatively conservative ideas about when and how to have sex, and Farah’s cool worldly sensuality immediately threatens his worldview, especially when she (and the literature course they take together) begins to introduce him to ancient Arabic love poetry and erotica. Unable to read Arabic but still certain that the old erotic manual Farah shows him early in the film is “not literature,” Ahmed struggles as the carnal material slowly worms its way into his brain, causing him to question all he knows about tradition and virtue .
Movies like A Tale Of Love And Desire often have a clearer, theistic reason for a character’s reservations, which is not quite the case here. Ahmed is from a family of Christian Algerian immigrants, but their faith and cultural background are not blamed for Ahmed’s own principles. In fact, it seems like almost everyone around him, his own parents included, is more liberalized in their acceptance of sensual pleasures. So Bouzid’s commentary seems loosely concerned with a more generalized “modern Arab man.” In Bouzid’s film, men of North African origin all suffer some of the same sexual neuroses regardless of country or religion.
The Greek chorus of Ahmed’s friends at the moving company represent the extremes of this spectrum: perpetual horndog Saidou (Diong-Kéba Tacu) longs to finally have sex, and even considers traveling to Amsterdam for the sole purpose of hiring a sex worker. Meanwhile the ultra-conservative Karim (Bellamine Abdelmalek) has such a problem with Ahmed’s sister’s alleged promiscuity that he blames Ahmed for it, acting increasingly hostile to his new “Parisian” way of life. According to Bouzid, cultural norms may actually be more suffocating when divorced from religion, since the orthodoxy is just in the air. Amid frequent dissections of the “incel” as a cultural movement, Bouzid suggests that the “volcel” has toxic qualities rooted in the same forces.
But more than any political or sociological point, Bouzid’s main concern is sensuality, and particularly the sensuality of new love. For all its narrative clichés borrowed from other coming-of-age stories, this approach drives the film into unique territory as a sort of erotic drama, albeit one with little sex depicted. Ahmed’s shameful realization that he is pining for Farah manifests as sensations both real and imagined: disembodied hands rub his chest on the bus; a knife is drawn up his back and pierces his neck. Sight is also a primary concern, with Ahmed’s furrowed brow a consistent focal point in the frame, his eyes always indicating his proximity to what he loves and what he’s afraid of.
Nearly all eroticism in the film stems from the longing that presages a consummation, with the main conflict of Ahmed and Farah’s relationship related to Ahmed’s preference to stay in this stage in perpetuity. Ahmed covertly justifies his hesitation during an oral report on the story of Layla and Manjun — an ancient legend concerning a poet who, after his true love is married to someone else, dies in obscurity wandering the desert and reciting poetry in her name. In one version of the legend, Layla actually comes back to Manjun after her husband dies, but he refuses to see her and harbors the thought that no corporeal love could match the intensity of the feeling in her absence. But Bouzid strongly believes in literature’s ability to link us to feelings that are timeless, and this cross-centuries bridge is ironically what allows Ahmed to change his traditional ways once he embraces the romantic passages Farah shares with him. It’s here that Bouzid escapes tired literature-film tropes to remind us that the most important part of literature is how it connects us to others.