Abstract This article analyses Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film The sheltering sky, an adaptation of a novel of the same title by the American author Paul Bowles. The story revolves around an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, who embark on an expedition into the Sahara Desert. In an attempt to rekindle the passion in their disintegrating marriage, the Moresbys throw themselves into an array of exotic experiences that end in disillusionment and sometimes ruin. The film's construction of the Arab/Muslim Other, through the eyes of Western travellers, can be seen as an exploration of the Self, made possible through the distancing effect of cultural difference. The Moresbys' inner conflicts are thus metaphorically enacted through their encounters with the local people. Yet, it is argued that the dynamics that underlie the characters' imagining of their cultural Others (especially the dialectic of attraction and repulsion) can be seen as operating, not only in Orientalist accounts, but in intercultural encounters in general--especially those marked by unequal power relations. It is proposed that adopting a psychological framework can help overcome the limitations of approaches usually applied to the study of intercultural relations in this field, especially Orientalist discourse analysis and postcolonial studies.