• Golden Globe Awards

A Tale of Love and Desire (France)

A couple of years ago, a call for teaching Arabic at French schools sparked a heated debate in France, with the right-wing critics warning that the Semitic language would expose the young French Arabs to extreme ideas and possibly terrorism.
In her second feature, A Tale of Love and Desire, Tunisian writer-director Leyla Bouzid shows the world and her lead character, an 18-year-old French-Algerian university student named Ahmed, that Arabic is a sensual and erotic language.
Raised in estate housing in the Paris suburbs by traditional immigrant parents, Ahmed avoids alcohol, smoking, parties, and sex. His journalist father was prevented from practicing his job in France, so he projects his dreams on his son – a burden that Ahmed carries with him to the Sorbonne, where he invests all his energy in his studies.
Ahmed’s focus, however, is disturbed in his first Arabic poetry class when his eyes catch a big-haired, dangerously cool Tunisian girl, Farah. Thus, his tumultuous coming-of-age journey begins.
Unlike Ahmed, Farah, who was born and raised in Tunisia, is more comfortable with her Arabic identity and not intimidated by her Parisian surroundings. Unencumbered by her society’s traditions, she lives liberally, eager to explore and enjoy whatever life offers her. So, in their first interaction on a bus, she breaks the ice and starts the conversation with apprehensive Ahmed, who struggles to articulate his thoughts.
“When I came to study in the Sorbonne, I was surprised by how conservative and traditionalist my French Algerian classmates were,” says Bouzid, who grew up in Tunisia.
The interaction between Ahmed and Farah exposes a cultural gap between Arabs who were raised in their homeland vs the Arab diaspora. Just like the French establishment, Ahmed, who neither speaks nor reads Arabic, perceives the language in religious terms. So, when Farah takes him to a bookstore and reads erotic poems from classic Arabic literature, he is perturbed and embarrassed, because Arabic for him is a sacred language. It’s the language of the Koran.
“The Islamic identity among the Arab diaspora is much stronger than their Arabic identity,” Bouzid explains. “So, they learn the only religious rigid text and are never exposed to the poetic beauty of the language.”
Ahmed’s exposure to Arabic as a culture complicates his perception of his own identity. He gradually but discreetly starts reading the forbidden Arabic texts of love and erotica, enjoying them. But when he mentions them to his cousins, they condemn him, dismissing the text as a conspiracy against Islam.
But Ahmed’s fiercest battle is with his emotions. He falls deeply in love with Farah but doesn’t know how to express it, so he explodes with rage either out of jealousy or over her “immodest” behavior. She tries to guide him and even seduces him, but he can’t shake off the shackles of his traditional thinking. His overwhelming lust for her is countered by the painful disgust of his desire, which is manifested in an intimate scene in her apartment: he abruptly leaves her just when they are on the verge of having sex.
Only when Farah gives up on him, Ahmed starts to reflect on who he is and what he wants to be. And he finds the answer to his predicament in Arabic poetry. Not only does it free him from his old misconceptions and crystalize his identity in his mind, but it also enables him to communicate his thoughts and feelings with Farah.