MARIA’S LOVERS (1984) marked one of the major career highpoints for Nastassja, which makes the disjointed and flawed follow up film, HAREM (1985), seem all the more disappointing. The very odd HAREM is not a total failure and has its pleasures but it would be the least valuable film Nastassja had made since SPRING SYMPHONY (1982) several years earlier.
HAREM was the brainchild of writer and director Arthur Joffe. The French born Joffe got his start in the early part of the eighties on a series of acclaimed short films before graduating into HAREM, his first feature length production. HAREM feels very much like the work of an inexperienced filmmaker as it never finds a consistent tone, and Joffe makes the mistake many young filmmakers make with their first production in that he attempts to tell the audience everything while convincing them of very little.
The opening shot of HAREM is a bit of a perfect encapsulation for everything that is wrong with the picture. Joffe begins his film with a visually impressive shot of the Statue of Liberty as it is being worked on by construction workers in the mid eighties. This overtly symbolic shot (the lady liberty in a cage…get it?) feels so overbearing and Joffe fills HAREM with needlessly heavy handed shots like this one. It is as though he isn’t totally convinced by his own material, and shots like this opening only point out the film’s failure to connect with its audience.
The main problem though at the heart of HAREM isn’t Joffe’s direction, which is at times very nicely done when he just allows the film to play, but is the script. Co-written with first time screen writer Tom Rayfiel, HAREM asks the audience to accept some of the most implausible situations imaginable. Unfortunately the script is so poorly conceived and rendered that there is never a moment where we fully accept what is happening to Kinski’s character or her reactions.
Nastassja plays a lonely New York stock broker named Diane, who is kidnapped on a boat to Liberty Island and ends up in another country in the harem of a sheik. While in this foreign land, Diane learns the ways of the harem and eventually falls in love with the sheik. That is, in essence, the plot of HAREM and it is as ridiculous as it sounds.
The opening shots of HAREM, outside of the Statue of Liberty shot, are actually quite good. Joffe does a very good job at showing us the kind of like Diane is living and why she might be unhappy with it. He also photographs New York exceedingly well and it should be mentioned that the cinematography by Italian photographer Pasqualino De Santis is lovely. Unfortunately the film begins to fall apart as soon as Kinski is kidnapped. Joffe’s script stops allowing her to behave like a real person at this point and even the most skilled of screenwriters would have trouble selling how accepting this independent young woman is to the conditions she is thrown into.
HAREM could have perhaps worked as a romantic fantasy had the role of the sheik been cast better, but unfortunately the usually reliable Ben Kingsley gives one of the blandest and most unconvincing portraits of his career and there isn’t a spark of chemistry between him and Kinski.
Kingsley was on a major role when he shot HAREM. He had won the Oscar just a couple of years previous for GHANDI (1982) and he was becoming one of the most respected actors in the world. There is no questioning how great of an actor Kingsley is but his performance in HAREM is nearly unbearably smug and stilted. Of course much of the blame lies in the script, but Kinsley’s attempt at being a tender misogynist comes across horribly wrong. There is never a moment when we can even begin to believe Diane would fall in love with him and their scenes together finally become laughable.
Kinski does the best she can with the material and she is extremely good in the early New York scenes (Joffe should have abandoned the HAREM idea and just made a film about this interesting character’s life in New York) but, like Kingsley, there is only so much that Nastassja can do with the material offered her. HAREM is finally one of her weaker performances but at the very least she is incredibly beautiful as photographed by Santis, it is just a shame that the script lets her down so badly.
HAREM does have its virtues. As previously mentioned it is an exceptionally photographed film and the score by Philippe Sarde is extraordinary. Joffe handles the quieter scenes in the film exceedingly well and some of the shots of the harem have a nice hallucinatory hazy feel about them. Still the film is ultimately disappointing and even with its virtues it is hard to recommend it.
HAREM would open up in Europe in the late fall of 1985. Amazingly it would do quite well upon its release and it was a multiple Cesar nominee. It isn’t hard to argue with the accolades presented to the Costume design and photography though as they are sublime. Joffe has been relatively unprolific since HAREM and it would take him five years to follow up his first feature film, with ALBERTO EXPRESS in 1990, and he has only completed two films since.
HAREM would get a delayed and short US release and appeared on video and laserdisc in the late eighties courtesy of Vestron. To my knowledge, and please correct me if I am wrong, HAREM has never been released anywhere on DVD. Used copies of the VHS are not hard to come by here as the film has never built any kind of substantial following in the States.
HAREM is said to be quite popular in France and I have heard it remains a staple on television over there. I have also heard that the Vestron video I am familiar with is edited but I have not been able to verify this. I would be most curious to see any extra footage but I doubt seriously that it would change my opinion of the film, one of the most disappointing of Nastassja’s golden period.