Spirited seventeenth century beauty Angélique (Michèle Mercier) is frolicking with her handsome, besotted friend Nicolas (Guliano Gemma) when they suddenly find their village has been raided and burned to the ground with many slaughtered. Soldiers see off the bandits but the land that once belonged to Angélique's father is ruined and his fortune lost. Shortly thereafter Angélique uncovers a plot to assassinate King Louis IV (Jacques Toja). Unable to expose the culprit as the King's own brother, the Prince of Condé (François Mastre), without putting her life at risk she instead disposes of his secret vial of poison. After three years in convent school Angélique reluctantly agrees to a marriage arranged by her father to the wealthy if mysterious Count Jeoffrey de Peyrac (Robert Hossein). To her horror Jeoffrey is not only hideously disfigured and with a club foot but seems to be practicing witchcraft with strange rituals involving tribal drums and a fiery pit. However, it turns out Jeoffrey is no satanist but a learned man using alchemy to turn ore into gold. He is also kind, gentle and courageous and soon melts Angélique's heart till she sees past his disfigurement. Sadly, sinister forces conspire to ensure the couple's happiness is short-lived.
Although all but unknown to English audiences, Angélique was an enormous success in France spawning four sequels and a remake in 2013. Based on a series of equally popular novels written by husband and wife team Anne and Serge Golon, the films made Michèle Mercier a star to rival Brigitte Bardot who was in fact producer Francis Cosne's first choice for the role before she turned it down. Inevitably Mercier soon found herself typecast but though her efforts to expand into Hollywood met with little success and her life off screen proved almost as tumultuous as Angélique's she remained active in French cinema well into the twenty-first century. Euro-horror fans may know her from the opening segment of Black Sabbath (1964), Mario Bava's memorable anthology of spooky tales, and she also appeared in The Wonders of Aladdin (1961) which Bava co-directed. Outside the Angélique films Mercier's career highlights included a small role in François Truffaut's amazing comedy-thriller Shoot the Pianist (1960), the Bob Hope comedy A Global Affair (1964) and the prostitution-themed multi-auteur anthology film The Oldest Profession (1967).
As the titular heroine Mercier is exceptional. She makes the most of a suitably epic character arc transitioning from girlish naivete to formidable, free-spirited heroine who through adversity grows increasingly bold, courageous and strong. While aspects of the core romance have a faintly Mills & Boon sentimental quality, stirred by Michel Magne's admittedly lovely score, the plot offers genuine dramatic bite and proto-feminist substance. Angélique always speaks her mind and defies convention even entrapped within the rigid social structure of the seventeenth century. This renders her a pleasingly timeless heroine without jarring with the period setting. Delightfully gutsy, faithful and determined, it is no wonder Mercier's character captured the imagination of the French public. At the same time Robert Hossein gives an affecting performance as the disfigured yet dashing Count Jeoffrey and makes a powerful entrance. The middle third is almost a Beauty and the Beast love story. Jeoffrey charms an initially reluctant Angélique by virtue of his gentility, intelligence and plain decency, proving as much an iconoclast as the heroine which leaves them ideally suited.
Another admirable facet of the story is the manner in which it champions reason and enlightenment in the face of bigotry, ignorance and oppression hiding behind religion. Jeoffrey befriends Chinese, Arabic and Indian experts in fields of mathematics, alchemy and astrology and employs science to his advantage which earns him the enmity of the Inquisition. Events take a dark turn after a visiting Louis IV decides he quite fancies making Angélique his mistress. Which gives royal conspirators the excuse they need to imprison Jeoffrey in the Bastille, seize his estate, murder his servants and heap all manner of indignities on poor Angélique. Jean Rochefort relishes some choice scenes as Jeoffrey's wily and resourceful lawyer, future spaghetti western star Guliano Gemma is an athletic presence as secondary love interest Nicolas while future giallo fixtures Robert Hoffmann and Rosalba Neri take on small roles. Bernard Borderie, a specialist in historical adventure films and thrillers, ensures the action moves at a brisk pace with swordplay, tragic twists and a notable sexual frankness that was daring for its time and still carries an erotic charge today. For those not well versed in French history the plot offers intriguing insights into political and religious corruption at the court of Versailles juxtaposed with impeccable period detail. The opulent sets are truly stunning and Henri Persin's cinematography soaks up the ravishing scenery. A class act all round with a rousing climax that sows the seeds for the sequel, Merveilleuse Angélique (1965).