There is a stereotype that the British view the French as over-sexed. So far in the French Film Festival I’m realising that is not a stereotype. The Comparative Literature lecturer in this hands out the course text of poetry and tells the class to really “savour the eroticism”. You do that in Glasgow, the whole class would cut up laughing and make a dick-sucking gesture behind your back the entire year.
A Tale of Love and Desire follows two lovers Ahmed and Farah, as they negotiate the complexities of sex and relationships in today’s France. Farah is a Tunisian student who’s come to study in Paris, and is eager to see all this new world can offer, and cut loose and enjoy the uni experience. Nervous virgin Ahmed is here to make sure it’s a real bummer.
Ahmed is from a working class neighbourhood and feels like a fish out of water at the Sorbonne. He barely speaks, can hardly look anyone in the eye, and struggles to relax or make friends. Then he spies Farah.
To Farah, Ahmed is French. She came to France for the French experience, you know, smooth talking, poetry whispering, wine-quaffing, romantic shaggers. Ahmed is none of that. He’s awkward, inarticulate, emotionally crippled, sexually repressed, and painfully shy to the point of paranoia. He acts like Tunisia is some back of beyond, but Farah is freer, more sexually experienced, more confident and happier in her own skin.
Ahmed’s parents are Algerian, but he doesn’t speak Arabic or even know much about that part of his heritage. Class is a much more defining part of his identity in relation to folk at uni. He doesn’t even seem to consider himself particularly religious, but he is heavily invested in the sense of propriety he was raised with. Which is a happy coincidence if you’re an anxious virgin.
To Farah, Ahmed seems more conservative and parochial than the middle-class Tunisian culture she grew up in back home. She finds him blowing hot and cold very frustrating, as you would, and feels judged and shamed whenever she reaches out for him. In all honesty, Ahmed manages to have all the hallmarks of a fuckboy without the fuck.
But I’m being a little harsh. Ahmed is 18. All his mates are other guys, who in typical toxic masculinity fashion, talk up a good game about women, then can barely interact with them. They swing between desire for sexual accessibility and controlling, shaming, and repressing women who are. You know, the usual patriarchy standards.
It doesn’t exactly equip you to deal with first love, or your first time, or living in a very sexually-charged French culture. This is one of those love stories where the only obstacle two lovers have is themselves.
While I still think Ahmed acts like a twat in this, I do get his fear of sex in a world where it has become so much of commodity, a chit in social standing, a matter for the public record. It’s not even about sex not being about love, it’s about sex not even being about sex. It’s about ego, and using the body of another for validation, and as a status symbol. Even if sex were just about sex, it would still retain respect, intimacy, privacy, and eroticism. But we all know of that dead-eyed fucking, that fucking where it’s like you’re trying to stab yourself. In a world where people are used as objects, sex is reduced to a transaction of social currency, and ceases to be, in a word, sexy.
Ahmed loves Farah but doesn’t know how to tell her what he wants. When he wants to touch her, he pulls away if she responds. If she initiates, he shuts down. When she offers to go slow, it comes to a grinding halt. And Ahmed is as frustrated as anybody at his own inability to respond correctly, or illicit the response he wants, or to know in the least bit what the fuck he’s doing.
In a hypersexualised culture, to negotiate love and desire remains as enigmatic as the world of the centuries-old poets they read.