Beautiful stockbrocker Diane (Nastassja Kinski) is drugged and abducted from her home in New York. She awakens to find herself the latest addition to the harem of Arabian sheik Salim (Ben Kingsley), whose palace is an enlightened oasis away from the chaos and confusion of the modern world. “You are in the most beautiful place in the world”, Diane is informed by faithful eunuch Massoud (Dennis Goldson). “If you let it, it will nourish you and you will blossom like a flower.”
Which is all well and good, only the ladies of the harem don’t seem to do very much beside lounge around all day amidst cavorting monkeys and barnyard animals or laugh themselves silly watching erotic movies on fast-forward. The elderly matriarch of the group (Zohra Segal) varies her routine by throwing Diane the old stink-eye, presumably because she is winsome and cute though nothing much comes of this subplot. Harem opens on a desolate and lonely looking New York city, one presumably intended to contrast with the warm and lively environment into which our heroine is confined. The build-up is ominous and suspenseful in a pleasingly low-key yet mysterious manner, yet despite a premise that these days would likely serve as the launching point for a thriller along the lines of Taken (2008), for his sole outing in the English language, French writer-director Arthur Joffé steers things in a more romantic and philosophical direction.
For ardent devotees of Nastassja Kinski, Harem affords another chance to view one of cinema’s great beauties in a state of undress, but the film has more on its mind than simply contemplating her charms. Its central provocative thesis is that an intelligent, ambitious young woman can find greater spiritual and emotional fulfillment submitting to feudal ideals of femininity than in the chaos and clutter of the so-called civilized world where feminism, capitalism and other western concepts of freedom simply get in the way. The film goes out of its way to make clear that Salim has no sexual interest in any of his women, except Diane. What he does instead is admire them from afar and let them be who they want to be. After her initial frantic attempts to escape, Diane grows to admire the sensitive, articulate and educated Salim. Sex does not intrude upon the relationship until she willingly offers herself to him.
Breathtaking photography by Pasqualino De Santis coupled with a marvellously evocative score from Phillipe Sarde, brother of the film’s producer Alain Sarde, cannot conceal that this boils down to a pretentious throwback to the old Rudolph Valentino silent movie, The Sheik (1921). It is pure Orientalist fantasy while the sexual politics herein are frankly insulting. Diane seems to emerge from her experience a more “complete” woman, but the film struggles to convey the reason why. None of her friends seem to have noticed she was gone, a plot hole conveniently ignored along with Salim’s shooting of a member of an American oil crew that intrude into the harem and carouse with his women and mess up his palatial furnishings. For all its attempts to portray Salim as a high-minded aesthete, he still emerges something of a closet materialist, coveting flash cars and designer luggage along with art and classical music. Even Diane proves something of an exotic import.
The film is picturesque but languid to the point of inducing boredom while its oddball attempts at comedy remain baffling at best. Kinski and Kingsley contribute nuanced, intelligent, customarily classy performances but the vacuous nature of the story provides neither actor with their finest hour.