Title: The Last Duel Director: Ridley Scott Writers: Nicole Holofcener (screenplay), Ben Affleck (screenplay), Matt Damon (screenplay) Stars: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Sir Ridley Scott is not a stranger to historical drama. From medieval epics such as Kingdom of Heaven (be sure to watch the superior director’s cut) to the Roman era masterpiece Gladiator, his historical era films have taken on their distinct visual style and storytelling. So when I sat down to watch Scott’s newest historical epic, The Last Duel, I thought I knew what I was getting into.
I didn’t. The Last Duel is something very different than Scott’s earlier medieval tales. Based on a true story, or at least a book based on a true story (written by Eric Jager), The Last Duel moves the story to France during the last decades of the 14th century. Here, men, and especially men wielding swords, govern the lives of everyone else. And here, women are seen as little more than property.
The Last Duel revolves around the two Norman squires Jean de Carrouges (played by Matt Damon) and his friend Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver). The Hundred Year War is in full swing, and the two friends busy themselves fighting the English for their liege lord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (played by Ben Affleck). Complications ensue when Jean de Carrouges marries the beautiful Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer), whom Le Gris is soon smitten by.
A Man’s Property
As we are told repeatedly in The Last Duel, the woman’s place in medieval France is that of a bargaining chip. Jean de Carrouges negotiates a marriage with Marguerite, which also gives him some valuable land. But when some of his promised lands are given away to Le Gris before he can claim them, their friendship slowly begins to fall apart. This conflict comes to a head when Le Gris gains entry into de Carrouges’ manor and rapes Marguerite.
The crime leads to a court case in front of the king of France, where the three involved parties tell their version of what led up to the crime. We are told that “Rape is not a crime against a woman. It is a property crime against her husband.” The Last Duel is divided into three distinct chapters, one for each of the three perspectives.
The first chapter follows Jean de Carrouges and is written by Matt Damon. Jean is an impatient, brutal, and arrogant man. Angrily roaring, “Can this man do nothing but evil to me?” when he finds out that his wife has been raped, de Carrouges accuses Le Gris. Matt Damon is excellent and not at all how we’re used to seeing him in his role as this scarred and ill-tempered squire.
The second chapter of The Last Duel, written by Ben Affleck, follows the perspective of Jacques Le Gris. Adam Driver is great as this charming, well-mannered squire who is used to getting everything he wants, including women. Shocked at experiencing what he believes to be love when seeing Marguerite, Le Gris tricks his way into the Carrouges manor to have his way with her. It is distressing to watch and almost as disturbing to hear him explain that yes, he did it, but he loved her, so it was his right. And by the way, she didn’t struggle more than what was customary for women in that situation, so not to worry.
The third chapter of The Last Duel takes on the perspective of the victim. Marguerite’s story is written by Nicole Holofcener and is without the strongest of the three. Here is the truth, and the film never makes this anything but obvious. Jodie Comer is, in my view, the film’s strongest cast member, and witnessing the crime for the second time (we do not see it in the first chapter) is almost unbearable to watch.
To the Death
Duels to the death was not a common practice to settle disputes in the late 1400th century. But it was the only way to know the will of God in the matter. Jean de Carrouges throws down the gauntlet, which Le Gris picks up. And if found guilty of lying because her husband loses the duel, Marguerite will be burnt alive. These were the laws of the land.
Ridley Scott loves his epic battle scenes. But compared to films like Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator, The Last Duel is more of an exploration of French medieval society. The film is dialogue- and character-driven, with (to us in modern times) shocking revelations of what went for everyday practice back in the 1400th century. But at the same time, The Last Duel wants us to bring our modern sensibilities with us, and here the film can find its strengths. More than anything, this is Marguerite’s story. And it is a story of a brutal sexual assault that is all too easy to put into a modern context.
Considering the themes in The Last Duel, the film is uncomfortable to watch. There are scenes and details here that will probably stick with you for quite some time. Luckily, there are some excellent performances throughout, with Ridley Scott at the top of his game directing the cast. But the film’s three-chapter structure, with a total running time of well over two and a half hours, where the same story is told from three different perspectives, tends to test one’s patience. It feels repetitive, especially in the first two chapters. However, The Last Duel finds its footing in the third chapter, where Marguerite’s story is told.
The Last Duel brings with it an important message about consent and the roles of gender in our society. Placing the story in the 1400th century France only serves to strengthen that message. Have we as a society learned anything in the last 600 years? I want to say yes. But then I hear about the countless sexual assault and harassment cases that seem to happen everywhere and all the time.
The Last Duel is a medieval reflection of the way many in our time still views sexuality. It is a comment on women’s rights and a woman’s right to make her own decisions in life, including those concerning her own body. It is a point that should be obvious to all, but some people need a reminder. Again, and again.