Margherita (Carroll Baker) calls off her wedding to Gianni (Gastone Moschin) the morning before the ceremony. She loves him but she admits that she's afraid of getting married. Margherita is friends with Gaetano (Renato Salvatori), who's happy that she's not getting married, since a woman should be independent and make her own decisions. Gaetano loves Margherita very much, and she loves him. Mike (William Berger) has returned from Kenya with a baby cheetah for Margherita and hopes for a little rest and some lovemaking. Mike takes up residence with Margherita's "eunuch," Rene (Michel Le Royer), who queries Margherita on whom is her perfect man. She doesn't know, so she goes to Yugoslavia on a holiday with Rene, only to invite the trio of Gianni, Gaetano, and Mike to visit.
Marco Ferreri begins his film, The Harem (1967), quite sweetly. Baker's Margherita is kind, caring, loving, and affectionate. Likewise the male actors play stereotypical roles: Gianni is an engineer who's successful, logical, and egotistical; Gaetano is a lawyer who loves to pontificate and advocate on abstract ideas; and Mike is a handsome, impulsive, unemployed artist-photographer. In fact, all the characters were so innocuous and likable during the first half of The Harem that I wondered if Ferreri was ever going to be able to create any dramatic conflict between them. I had no idea where the film was going, but around the halfway mark, I thought if it continued its semi-lite tone, the film would soon move into tedium, because it wasn't funny enough to be a serious comedy and not serious enough to be a drama. However, the events in The Harem did change during the second half, and the would-be tedium of the first half of the film was a set-up for its ultimate theme and subsequent ending.
In 1967, with sexual mores and gender roles being called into question with the cultural changes of the Sexual Revolution, the motif of having one woman who loves three men equally and wishes to have each in her life is potentially provocative and progressive. Ferreri doesn't settle on making an initial socio-political statement with his film: he's not going to present his female lead character as one who is making a conscious choice to love three men equally as an assertion of independence and power but to present his character as one who genuinely loves three men in three different yet equally strong ways, despite the consequences.
The characters' time at the villa is spent with the leisure typically associated with a holiday vacation. Mike, Gianni, and Gaetano (and Rene) despite being jealous suitors of Margherita begin to bond and subsequently become quite close. Their bonding seems to be what Margherita planned to have happen, and she became free to be among all of them peacefully or be alone with one intimately. The male characters do not bond, however, through a positive kinship: each overtly or subtly finds Margherita's attitude towards relationships absurd, immoral, or hostile. Their behavior, especially collectively, becomes over the course of the holiday more hostile towards Margherita, first as light teasing then ultimately openly degrading her.
Having his female lead character lack a raison d'etre associated with any socio-political statement (free love, female empowerment, female independence) gave Ferreri's ultimate theme more weight. Despite her open and loving actions, Margherita is punished for them. The males' actions aren't a reaction to her assertive actions: the males must assert continual power over females in order to maintain the status quo. Society or culture, then, is ultimately quite determinative and very reticent to change.
Carroll Baker's performance in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956) brought her both critical acclaim and notoriety. Among cult film fans, she would have quite the career in European cinema, and I believe The Harem was her first European production. For example, Baker would collaborate with director Umberto Lenzi on four notable films: Orgasmo (1969), So Sweet... So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Knife of Ice (1972). Baker is beautiful and charismatic and professional. Gastone Moschin I will always associate with his intense, brooding performance in Fernando di Leo's Milano calibro 9 (1972), but The Harem reminded me how funny Moschin can be (as in Stelvio Massi's Fearless Fuzz (1977), for example). Handsome William Berger would be a stalwart in European cult cinema up until his death in the early 1990s and made many a notable film (too numerous to list here), especially his roles in Westerns. Subsequent to The Harem, Marco Ferreri would go on to make some of the oddest, most thought-provoking, and aesthetically-challenging European films of the 1970s and beyond. While The Harem is dated and a little too contrived for my tastes, I believe it shows some very creative talent and boasts excellent performances by all.