Not just a tale of love and desire, but of first love, that so many of us experience as something that remains in the memory, however fleeting it may have been.
Leyla Bouzid’s tender, sensitive film lingers in the memory, too. When Ahmed (Sami Outabali) meets Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) in class in the Sorbonne their nascent relationship is backgrounded by the subject matter of their course – early Arabic erotic poetry.
This is something new to Ahmed. He’s 18 years old, a son of Algerian parents with whom he still lives, brought up in the suburbs of Paris and who has never learned Arabic. Farah, on the other hand, has only just arrived in Paris from Tunisia to attend university. Both are shy, but Farah is the one who is keen to take their romance to another level, while Ahmad’s reluctance is a source of frustration to her. At a party at New Year, she is unsurprisingly upset when, as the move to kiss, she finds Ahmed looking round to make sure no-one is watching. The one question we might ask is why she bothers with him, but anyway, after this understandable falling out, she persists.
Ahmed is something of an indecisive character at the best of times, and finds himself bewildered by the discovery of the eroticism of the texts they study – The Perfumed Garden features here, as you might expect – when he has been brought up in a society that has impressed on him ideals of purity and self-denial.
While the question Ahmed might ask himself is which he wants most, love or desire, Bouzid gently takes him down a path that finally lets him understand what Farah already knows, that these two things are not mutually exclusive but parts of a whole.
This is a beautiful experience, with Belhajamor and Outabali very well cast, and totally believable as a couple. The love with which Bouzid imbues the film did make me ponder as to whether there was an autobiographical element to the story, but whether or not, she treats her young protagonists with love and respect, and we can ask no more.