Angélique (Michèle Mercier) roars back to life in this lively third installment in the five-film series, which sees her becoming a crucial instrument in the affairs of Louis XIV, and thus the subject of much palace intrigue. When Angelique accepts a diplomatic assignment to the Persian ambassador Bachtiary-Bey (Sami Frey), she’s rewarded with Peyrac’s estate — now she has two manors — but ends up as a kind of political prisoner, the captive of Bachtiary-Bey, who intends to rape and perhaps murder her. Rescued in the nick of time (by a Hungarian prince!), she returns to the king’s court, where she’s regarded with dismay by the king’s wife and actively scorned by the king’s current mistress, who senses impending obsolescence. The second half of the film is the most brashly inventive part of the series so far, including one recurring character’s death, another’s return from the grave, multiple attempts on Angélique’s life, and even a black mass.
While the film’s gender politics are suspect — Angélique remains admirably crafty and composed throughout, but there’s something distasteful about the way these movies seem to excuse (if not endorse) the cloddish, sexually menacing behavior of the men around her — it’s undeniably exciting to see a female protagonist in this environment refusing to be cowed by threats of violence and violation, or to even once go weepy with self-pity. The filmmakers don’t forget that it was tough to be a woman at the end of the 18th century, but they don’t make her a perennial victim, either.
Racial attitudes, too, are a mite uncomfortable. Dark-skinned characters hung around the margins of the first film like set dressing, and Peyrac complained pointedly that his hideous facial scar was etched by an unnamed Persian. This time around, that isolated reference to Arab cruelty is replaced by the spectacular callousness of Bachtiary-Bey, who casually orders the torture of bodyguards and servant girls and has a fixation on what he sees as the western illusion of free will. That last moment is theologically intriguing, but it’s used to further sketch the Persian as a monstrous cartoon. I found myself wondering how closely the character hewed to the one established in the 1959 source novel, and whether his film portrayal was influenced by anti-Arab sentiment surrounding the wave of North African immigrants entering France in the 1960s.
Beyond all that, the film is a blast, driven as much by sex and skullduggery as by Angélique’s lavish assortment of corsets and gowns. There may not be much to it as cinema — it’s definitely in the tradition of middlebrow populism, leaning toward romance-novel silliness — but it’s one heck of a soap opera.