Review: ‘A Tale of Love and Desire’ a rich, if jumbled, look at a young Algerian in Paris

A young woman and young man in a crowd in the movie “A Tale of Love and Desire.”
Zbeida Belhajamor and Sami Outalbali in the movie “A Tale of Love and Desire.”
(Distrib Films US)

Erotic verses from ancient Arab poetry enrapture a painfully inhibited young man in the sensual coming-of-age drama “A Tale of Love and Desire” from Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid. Insecurity plagues Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), the 18-year-old son of Algerian refugees studying literature at the famed Sorbonne in Paris. There, he falls for Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), an open-minded girl from Tunis who challenges his sexist hypocrisy.

In touch with her own carnal desires, Farah repeatedly tries to free Ahmed from the emotional blockage imposed by patriarchal norms. Bouzid makes the case that before religious restrictions maligned hedonism, Arab art and philosophy advocated for physical pleasure.

But despite having connected with words that exalt romantic lust, Ahmed still sees sex as an impure act that taints love and not as a manifestation of it. In the disenfranchisement he feels from his heritage, there’s something lost about himself that‘s replaced with an opaqueness of spirit and a defeated demeanor.


Ahmed’s personal struggles mimic the oppression in Algeria and throughout the Arab world. While scenes at home broaden this context, showing his uprooted father’s influence on him, the intermingling of all these ideas lacks strong cohesion. There are lyrical touches in the form of dance and magical realist inserts that act as a visual escape valve for the pressure that builds from the protagonist’s overwhelming uneasiness.

Throughout, we share in Farah’s frustration, as Ahmed’s behavior suffocates the film, exponentially raising the necessity for a narrative catharsis. And in that regard, the director’s intent is effective, given that she waits until the very end to provide this release. Outalbali’s apprehensively quiet portrayal of this repressed individual, out of touch with his Algerian identity, feels deliberately one-noted until a liberating turning point.

Intellectually rich even if jumbled, “Tale” plays like a spiritual continuation of Bouzid’s 2015 debut, “As I Open My Eyes,” in the prominence of Arab music, its political undertones related to the Arab Spring, and because it also focuses on a defiant young woman named Farah with vaguely similar characteristics. Both pieces convey a yearning for an individual and collective freedom that begins with control over one’s own body as a means of expression.

‘A Tale of Love and Desire ’

In French and Arabic with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Available March 11 on Laemmle Virtual Cinema