A story of love and desire ***
by Leyla Bouzid
French film, 1 h 42
The cinema is often attached to the first steps in love and the entry into the sexuality of young girls, much more rarely to these beginnings with boys, “As if there was no subject”, Leyla Bouzid notes. At the center of its delicate Love and desire story, it places Ahmed, 18, French of Algerian origin, who grew up in a suburb of the Paris region without ever having been to his parents’ native country.
Perhaps to reconnect with his roots, the first year student at the Sorbonne enrolled in an Arabic literature course. But the teacher, the charismatic Madame Morel, disappoints her expectations by focusing her sessions on the erotic texts of the 12the century like The Scented Garden of Cheikh Nefzaoui, which plunges him into unease. Farah, she does not encumber herself with these torments. Daughter of the bourgeoisie of Tunis, she studied in France to open up her horizons and to escape the constraints that her country imposed on women. Between Ahmed, padlocked and silent, and Farah, free and fulfilled, a tender attraction blossoms.
After a critically acclaimed debut film in 2015, I barely open my eyes, on the thirst for emancipation of a young Tunisian before the “Arab Spring”, Leyla Bouzid confirms her talent with this pretty deep story on the birth of the feeling of love in a modest boy. Imbued with a culture that hides intimacy, rubbing shoulders with men who extol their sexual exploits in toxic masculinity, Ahmed rejects his desire for Farah, with which he nevertheless falls in love. The Arabic books that Madame Morel asks them to read lead him to sublimate his love, but he rejects the joyous incitement to pleasure. Leyla Bouzid films with a touching subtlety a romantic and literary initiation, as well as the resistance opposed to them by Ahmed.
The director stages two facets of the Maghreb world without giving in to the temptation to oppose them. Son of parents who cut ties with fleeing Algeria in the 1990s, Ahmed does not speak Arabic. Impregnated with a certain Muslim moralizing rigor which casts shame on women living their sexuality outside the framework of marriage, he reflects the pressure of the city on his sister.
Despite his passion for books, he does not feel fully at home in literature classes at a Parisian faculty. A concern for legitimacy foreign to Farah who chose to come to France and whose freedom from her culture is partly acquired by her social background and her family. The courses in Arabic literature represent for her a deepening, whereas for Ahmed they appear as a discovery.
Leyla Bouzid films the young man with sensuality and captures the stages, tiny or decisive, of his emancipation. The finesse interpretations of Sami Outalbali and Zbeida Belhajamor contribute to the sweetness of this story of a loving awakening where the glances exchanged and the gestures held back in spite of oneself express the silent desires.