While the standard-bearers of the nouvelle vague were off making stuff like The Soft Skin, Contempt, and Muriel, le cinema du papa was cranking right along with this historical potboiler, a romance about the lavish and dangerous love shared between Angélique (Michèle Mercier), the daughter of a poor nobleman living in the French countryside, and Joffrey de Peyrac (Robert Hossein), a wealthy count with a reputation for deviltry who essentially buys her hand in marriage. Peyrac takes Angelique away from the common people she loves — and from Nicolas (Giuliano Gemma), the strapping young fieldhand who first took her fancy — but wins her over by declining to force himself on her. Instead, the cold, cold cockles of her heart are thawed when the limping, scarred Peyrac manages to perforate the chest of a rival in a swordfight. By contemporary standards, this is hilarious stuff — yet somehow it’s still stirring, swooning through its melodramatic paces with the speed and slippery, unstoppable heft of the proverbial greased pig. Think of a Francophone cross between Gone With the Wind and Barbarella.
As the titular Angelique, in a role that Brigitte Bardot is said to have declined, Mercier is sexy and spunky in equal measure, playing an agreeable fantasy woman whose loyalty is fierce but not easily won. She certainly doesn’t run out of things to do. Almost as soon as the film begins, Angélique is foiling a plot to poison King Louis XIV. Later on, she’ll embark on a near-impossible quest to save her husband from execution after he runs afoul of the same monarch. She’s menaced by the Church and by the Inquisition; a holy man who tries to help her is found the next day floating in the Thames. It’s hard being Angélique — for a time it seems like everyone she meets wants to sleep with her, holds a grudge against her, or both. The music score by Michel Magne rises to meet the fraught narrative on screen, with string crescendos and frenzied piano-pounding accompanying key scenes like the one in which Peyrac, with seduction on his mind, starts making the scene with a mud-covered antique statue as Angélique, thawing, looks on.
Yes, it’s an awfully long way from Alphaville, but this is fun. Mercier (who actually had a role in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player several years earlier) complained later that her acting career was stunted by her lifelong identification with the role of Angélique. Indeed, the film was so beloved by European audiences that it spawned four (!) sequels. It doesn’t hurt that it’s heavy on sex appeal, with the lovely Mercier appearing nearly nude in several scenes (and some topless dancers visible in a party at Peyrac’s place midway through the film). None of the performances strikes me as especially impressive technically — Hossein’s is generally considered the standout — but everyone seems to hit their marks. The production values are reasonably high, with the set design (by René Moulaert) and the costumes (designed by Rosine Delamare) benefiting from cinematographer Henri Persin’s warm, lush widescreen photography. I wouldn’t want to mount a defense of it on aesthetic or ideological grounds (as cinema it strikes me as obstinately conservative, despite its hugely satisfying flirtation with trashiness) but as cinematic comfort food, it’s mighty tasty.