The Last Duel, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon follows the story surrounding the last judicial duel in France, a fight to the death between, Sir Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques le Gris after de Carrouges’s wife, Maguerite accuses his former friend of rape. Based on the book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, by Eric Jager, as well as the true events that occurred in the late 14th century The Last Duel often has the look and feel of a medieval epic, however it is anything but.
The Last Duel explores how masculine pride and patrilineal hierarchies blatantly disregard the female perspective leading to their oppression through often coerced and involuntary silence, the struggle of obtaining and retaining power at all costs, how we respond to the consequences of our actions and how they, can negatively affect us both personally and generationally. Unlike Ridley Scott’s gladiatorial and medieval epics of the past The Last Duel has no heroes which is why more men should see it.
The Last Duel is told in three chapters; Chapter one, the story according to Sir Jean de Carrouges, Chapter two, the story according to Jacques le Gris and the truth which is Maguerite de Thibouville’s story. This structure is not dissimilar to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon which also follows the story of a rape from the different perspectives of those involved. The Last Duel often repeats commonalities and exhibits nuances and tiny details within each of our main characters testimonies. This brings about some great performances from Comer, Driver, and to some extent, Damon as they are essentially playing three roles, one as their characters perceive themselves to be, another as who their enemy sees them as and thirdly how they truly are.
While I was apprehensive about Damon starring in the role as on paper as he isn’t believable as a 14th century Norman knight in reality Damon gives a good performance as Sir Jean de Carrouges as in the beginning he exhibits his character as one the audience should empathize with, to think of him as a great husband and hero as he nobly seeks justice for his wife. As the second and third chapters progress however, Damon’s once heroic portrayal gets thrown into levels of disbelief as he consistently acts as a petulant child when things do not go his way and he coldly and cruelly mistreats his supportive and caring wife by locking her up and openly chastising her for trying to please him. He’s akin to toxic men today who think they know better than you in their morality, and judge and condemn those that are different to them while at the same time wanting to have respect from those that he has judged as inferior. His ambition and insecurity for power and strength stifle his every move constantly making mistakes due to his jealousy and pride. The transformation of his character is subtle to a certain degree as a streak of his cruelty pulsates throughout le Gris and Marguerite’s testimonies.
Jodie Comer’s performance in The Last Duel will undoubtedly set her up for a very prolific and long storied career as she’s able to flesh out a silenced historical figure all while playing a modern heroine. Little is known about Lady Marguerite de Thibouville apart from historians chronicling her intelligence, rape and the events surrounding it forcing both Comer and Holofcener to create a personality that fits both the historical person and a modernized heroine. Through this, Comer also has a shapeshifting exhibition as Maguerite is introduced to the audience as a shy and intelligent woman that loves her husband deeply. As the audience sees both her husband’s and her rapists’ perspectives, we are presented with two different Marguerites, an adoring and loving wife, and the flirty and unfaithful woman that is reaching out for a more emotionally open and virulent lover. When it comes time for the truth, Comer is brilliant in the change in tone as she is truly the loving and adoring wife that treats her husband and his friends with love and respect, as well as being an intelligent lover of prose, a successful steward when her husband is away at war to the deeply hurt and emotionally fragile but courageous woman who not only wants justice for the injustice done to her, but for the world of men as a whole including her husband.
Adam Driver once again gives an amazing performance as Jacques le Gris as he not only looks the part but truly plays a complicated villain in every way. In the first chapter le Gris is a cunning social climber that seeks to hurt de Carrouges at every turn. However, the audience’s idea of le Gris changes in his own retelling of the events as he makes himself to be a self-made man through his small clerical education, his extortion of his lord’s vassals and his self-claimed seduction skills, which the audience can clearly see as sexual abuse and power holding from our modern sensibilities. Driver plays a man who believes in his own hype and genuinely believes that Maguerite is in love with him almost as much as he is in love with himself and decides to pursue that through rape knowing that Marguerite was left alone. After committing the terrible act he gaslights Marguerite by saying that it was all her fault that it happened, that she seduced him and her husband will kill her if she tells him about what had just happened. Driver is just so arrogantly confident in himself that you want to reach across the screen and strangle him with his own cruelty and malice.
As an amateur medievalist and film critic that focuses on how historical films like The Last Duel can help us understand history better and how themes in filmmaking impact our society, The Last Duel was exceptional. Holofcener, Affleck, and Damon are able to successfully walk the tightrope of being loosely historically accurate by showcasing true aspects of medieval life while at the same time not bogging down the general public with too much detail. While it is mostly a success, there are glaring issues where one could argue that its perspective on the case’s truth is blurred according to historical evidence. Despite trying to exhibit Marguerite as a heroic historical figure for speaking out against her rapist, the historical reality is that there is no evidence that Maguerite initiated the accusation of rape that her husband charges le Gris with as the evidence shows that it is entirely possible that forced his wife to be a apart of the trial so he could legally kill his arch-rival. By giving her the right to accuse that within the film, the writers are creating a new character that has the power to accuse and be heard which overshadows and doubly silences the real-life Marguerite. Just like this injection of modern ideas into the film, there are many awkward exchanges that are meant to be met with laughter throughout the film which usually involve Ben Affleck’s character Count Pierre d’Alençon but usually fall flat in a film whose central themes and ideas are extremely heavy and don’t even get me started on those horrible helmets they wear throughout the film.
Upon seeing the first two chapters one realizes that the duel isn’t about bringing a vile man to justice at all, it’s about the desperation of men trying to cling to the scraps of power that they have inherited or were gifted by their overlords. de Carrouges and le Gris know that while they hold little power in the world of men, they realize that by controlling and abusing women they convince themselves into thinking that they have even more power than they truly have. de Carrouges and le Gris don’t see Maguerite and her rape as a horrific act inflicted upon a woman, but as an insult towards someone’s property and something that was done to each other. le Gris choses to rape Marguerite for two reasons, he genuinely thinks that Marguerite is interested in him and wants to bed her, as well as wanting to hurt de Carrouges as he knows de Carrouges is easily goaded into situations in which his honor and martial skills are questioned. de Carrouges’ response to his wife’s confession that she was sexually abused is not one of support and sympathy, as he wants the audience, both the courts and us movie goers to believe, but one of aggression and self-pity as he sees her rape as something evil done towards him as le Gris had taken what de Carrouges deemed as rightfully his before.
Unfortunately these personality traits are still prominent in our society today despite efforts to eradicate these toxic behaviors. While watching the film I felt a deep disgust at the behaviors that both men displayed and was shocked to hear one of the other male members in the audience cheer when the duel resulted in a “winner”. Did this man learn nothing while watching this? Did he honestly think that justice was achieved upon seeing a man’s death? The way we interact and see media is an increasingly worrying with how people interpret or see things for face value. As men we need to listen and subsequently learn from the stories of those abused by other men in order to break the cycle of violence against women and violence in general. By watching historical films that center around sexual abuse and then holding ourselves up to the mirror that is the film’s reflections and ruminations on how that cycle continues with the help of each generation, then and only then can we break that cycle. If we ignore the voice of the abused, we condemn those that have yet to be abused. While yes, you can get caught up in the building of the tension and the excitement of the duel as it is heart-pounding, you must reflect on the context as to why it was happening and who is to blame rather than accepting a “winner” or a loser” and then go on to celebrate someone that shouldn’t be celebrated.
Although The Last Duel may look like a return to form for Ridley Scott, the film’s exploration of toxic masculinity, its consequences, and how we should focus and learn from those who were abused instead of the abusers shines a light on a rising and much needed category of historically based filmmaking, the unglorified epic.