Patrick Redmond / 20th Century Studios via AP
The last duel is a sprawling, often unsightly, three-part talkie film Rashomon-dramatic style that mixes past and current politics, but there is an uplifting intelligence to its mess. This sets the stage for many epics in the Ridley Scott period, on a dark day with two sides preparing for battle.
We are in Paris in the year 1386, and the fighters are the dashing squire Jacques Le Gris is Adam Driver and the brooding knight Sir Jean de Carrouges is Matt Damon. Jean’s wife Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, watches anxiously from her seat. As the two men are about to face spears, the film cuts and rewinds several years to show what brought these three characters to this moment.
There is a lot more rewinding to come. The last duel is based on a true story that he tells no less than three times, each time from a different character’s perspective. The screenplay, adapted from Eric Jager’s non-fiction book, is the result of a unique collaboration between three screenwriters. Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the first two chapters with a focus on men, while Nicole Holofcener wrote the third chapter with a focus on Marguerite. It’s an ingenious take on what plays out as a medieval #MeToo story, tackling power, class, and gender dynamics at a time when women were seen as little more than the property of men.
The opening chapter centers around Carrouges, played by Damon with a fair scowl and a mullet so hideous that it almost immediately turns you against him. Carrouges is a brave warrior from a long line of brave warriors, but also a proud and petty man with a chip on his shoulder. We first see him with Le Gris in 1370, fighting valiantly against the English and becoming close friends. But Carrouges begins to resent when their superior Count Pierre d’Alénon, a sassy libertine hilariously played by Affleck takes Le Gris under his wing. The count even gives Le Gris a coveted piece of land that was originally intended for Carrouges as part of his wife Marguerite’s dowry, resulting in years of legal struggles.
Then one evening, Marguerite comes forward and tells her husband that while he was away, Le Gris came to their castle in Normandy and raped her. Carrouges made the accusation public, triggering a duel between him and Le Gris, which would become the last officially recognized combat trial in France.
At this point, the first chapter ends and the film returns to the beginning, this time replaying the events from The Gray’s perspective. As one of the Earl’s closest allies, Le Gris has come to live a life of privilege and debauchery, and Driver sees him primarily as a gift from God to women. This stokes his tensions with Carrouges, who is ultimately knighted and demands that Le Gris show him respect.
Around this time, Le Gris falls madly in love with Marguerite and becomes certain that she returns her feelings to him. This brings us to their fateful encounter, in which Le Gris convinces himself that Marguerite’s protests are only signs of a bad conscience. But even though the film shows us its version of events, it completely rejects its illusion: what we are seeing is unmistakably sexual assault, in which Marguerite repeatedly says no and tries to push it away.
The third chapter, which takes place from Marguerite’s perspective, revisits the rape scene, and to some viewers it may seem like one too many grueling replay, especially as Marguerite’s trauma is now even more apparent. But it is also the chapter in which the moral arc of the story becomes clearer. After so much boorish male behavior, fully embodied by Damon and Driver, the fierce intelligence and humanity of Comer’s performance is like balm. Marguerite appears to be by far the most honest and lucid of the three main roles in the film, heroic in her refusal to remain silent about what she has endured.
Towards the end of the film, Marguerite finds herself on trial, forced to defend her rape allegation in a court filled with men trying to discredit her. The sequence plays like black satire, suggesting how much has changed and also how much hasn’t changed. And then there’s the duel, which seems almost subversively anticlimactic: it offers all the bloody virtuosity you’d expect from Ridley Scott, but something sounds deliberately hollow. It doesn’t matter which man wins, the film seems to say, in a world where women are doomed to lose.
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