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It is about “desire, desire, desire, and more desire.” That’s how a Sorbonne literature professor introduces Arabic poetry to her students at the beginning of Tunisian screenwriter-director Leyla Bouzid’s latest film, “Une Histoire d’Amour et de Désir” (“A Tale of Love and Desire”), which premiered on July 14 at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The film can be described in much the same way.
“Une Histoire” follows reserved French Algerian college student Ahmed (Sami Outalbali (“Sex Education”)) and the lively, magnetic Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a Tunisian student whom Ahmed first sees in his Arabic poetry class. The chemistry between the pair is palpable from the very beginning, and the film wastes little time in establishing them as lovers — physical ones, at that. Therein lies the central tension of “Une Histoire,” and the one that Bouzid appears most interested in: Ahmed’s relationship to sex is a complicated one, repressed by internalized misconceptions of purity and respect. Farah, on the other hand, acts as the foil to Ahmed, providing a fresh and unrestricted look at physical desire not as a shameful act but as a very manifestation of the love Ahmed tries so desperately to keep sacred, often at his own expense.
Throughout the film, Bouzid expertly teases out this tension in Ahmed and Farah’s relationship, creating a high-strung, slow burn of an exploration into the complex spaces between sex and love, between divinity and desire. In one of the best moments of the film, Bouzid lays bare all these intersections in a single scene. While presenting the Arab story of Layla and Majnun — in which the poet Majnun, while completely enamored with Layla, refuses to add a physical dimension to their relationship — Ahmed claims that it’s because to do so would be to ruin her divinity and thus go against his all-consuming love for her, no doubt a reflection of his own views, distilled into one single explanation. When his professor reminds him that his interpretation is more old-fashioned and only one of hundreds, she sets Ahmed on a path to re-evaluate his entire worldview. Immediately, we see his devotion to the madonna-whore complex crumble in a telling moment of growth.
Similarly compelling is Bouzid’s treatment of the cultural and situational factors that play into Farah and Ahmed’s relationship. Ahmed, as the son of immigrants who maintains strong ties to some of his culture but not others — for example, he subscribes to culturally-relevant patriarchal standards of purity, but can’t speak or read Arabic — is often depicted as torn between the two worlds. Unlike Farah, who is secure in her identity as an Arab person, he is at first bound tightly to beliefs that even his own family members don’t hold. Instead, he is often found at odd ideological ends when it comes to his relationship with Farah as he pursues what he thinks is the “perfect Arab life.”
The whole film, really, is about sex and what it means for love, connection, and intimacy. Through the re-examining of his relatonship with sex through various moments of awakening, Ahmed not only imporoves his relationshp with himself but also his culture, family, friends, and, of course, Farah. And to add to its many narrative and thematic successes, the film is also visually and emotionally stunning — the sex scenes, for one, are exemplary of how cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert’s skill in capturing a fleeting sense of intimacy — coming together to add depth to a story that is itself irresistible.
“Une Histoire” not only excels at what it sets out to do, but also leaves its audience rapt and aching for more. As Bouzid said of her hopes for the film at the beginning of the premiere, “I hope you’ll want to love, and to wish to do something else than love. To touch, too.”
—Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bySofiaAndrade.
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