“The Last Duel” is a gruesome spectacle of a time when women were little more than chattel and broodmares and rape was a crime against property. The key event, the last judicially sanctioned duel by the Parlement of Paris begins the film before we journey into three different accounts of the truth: The alleged rape of Marguerite de Carrouges, the second wife of the knight Sir Jean de Carrouges, by his estranged friend, squire Jacques Le Gris.
The film is written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Nicole Holofcener and divided into three parts: “The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris” and “The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” There is a fourth truth: That of the filmmakers, but I’ll touch on that later.
In “Part 1: The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is a man with a bad haircut and bad manners. He is rough and impatient, only somewhat constrained by social mores. He disobeys an order but sees his cause as just (Battle at Limoges on 19 September 1370). Here Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris are still friends. Le Gris was the godfather of Jean de Carrouges’ son, during that decade, but the plague would take both the mother and son. It wasn’t until the end of that decade, in 1377, that Carrouges and Le Gris become vassals of Pierre d’Alençon, who inherited all after the death of his brother Robert.
Jean de Carrouges has great faith in God, but lacks in learning unlike his second wife, the young and very beautiful Marguerite (Jodie Comer) whom he marries in 1380. The only surviving child of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), Marguerite is a pawn in her father’s attempt to regain favor with the crown. He sided against the King of France twice and was thought a traitor although he had been pardoned.
During his second marriage, Jean de Carrouges brings a lawsuit against both Count Pierre of Alençon (Affleck) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Le Gris rises in Count Pierre’s estimation, while Jean de Carrouges falls, losing the captaincy that had been his father’s and he thought he’d inherit to Le Gris.
Yet at celebration hosted by another family, Jean Crespin (Marton Csokas), the two friends put aside their differences and Jean de Carrouges bids Marguerite to kiss Jacques Le Gris on the lips.
Jean de Carrouges is away when the alleged rape occurred so he must trust the word of Marguerite.
Part 2 is “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris.”
Le Gris is a man who came from nothing and had once trained to be a priest. As a result, he has learning and can, unlike many of his peers, read and write. He is also a man who has a reputation as a womanizer. He finds favor with Count Pierre and we see how he judges his friend Jean de Carrouges and Marguerite.
As he draws away from Jean de Carrouges, he finds a fellow hedonist in Adam Louvel (Adam Nagaitis). They both appreciate the kind of wild romping that Count Pierre enjoys outside of his marriage, although the women seem all too willing.
The last part (Part 3) is “The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges.” This section is filled with pathos, of women betraying other women and betraying their feelings about their position and the constraints upon them.
What remains the same is the view of Count Pierre and their too young sovereign, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). It might help to know that Charles VI (3 December 1368-21 October 1422) was first known as Charles the Beloved (le Bien-Aimé), but later as Charles the Mad (le Foi or le Fou).
In December of 1386, when the duel takes place, Sir Jean de Carrouges IV (1330s to 1396) is in his fifties. His wife, Marguerite, was still young when she married Carrouges in 1380. Jacques Le Gris was about the same age as Jean de Carrouges. The king who oversaw the duel, Charles VI, was 18 at the time of the duel. He had just married Isabeau of Bavaria (17 July 1385) who was about 15.
While you might think this is like the Akira Kurosawa 1950 film, “Rashomon,” remembering that film were four different accounts: the ghost of the murdered samurai speaking via a female shaman, the bandit, samurai’s wife and the woodcutter who witnessed it all. In the end, all three lied at the trial.
In “The Last Duel,” we don’t have a view of the three by an outsider. I had to wonder just why Marguerite’s mother-in-law decided to leave Marguerite alone, taking most of the servants, despite her son’s admonitions. Further, the narratives of the men (Parts 1 and 2) never show how possibly common place rape was as part of war. Only the ugliness of war on men is visually depicted. Moreover, this film has a decided opinion of the truth and yet the film doesn’t tell the truth as is historically described by professor of English at UCLA, Eric Jager, who wrote the eponymous book that the film is based on. In Jager’s telling, the historical documents of Marguerite’s testimony make the rape more harrowing. In the film, there are witnesses who kept quiet, men keeping a code of silence.
The men–Carrouges, Count Pierre and Le Gris–are differing degrees of loathsomeness. The chemistry between Damon, Affleck and Driver is perfectly toxic in a grunting and gruesomely historic way. Damon’s Carrouges is a faithful, plodding warrior with dull eyes and a mind that travels in a straight line without noticing the scenery. He has no guile and as a husband, he lacks sensitivity. Killing for the king is his job and he takes it seriously. Director Ridley Scott makes the slaughter grim, ugly and, at times, mundane.
Affleck’s Count Pierre is educated but not particularly diligent in his duties: He prefers orgies with his chosen friends and the young maidens. Are the women all willing? We’re led to believe so. He does not neglect his wife: She eventually bears him eight kids. Justice or faith isn’t something that he bothers with and he leaves boring things like accounting to Le Gris.
Driver’s Le Gris is a cautiously greedy, grasping man. Like Damon’s Carrouges, Driver’s Le Gris’ ego allows him to delude himself in his relations with Marguerite. Pay attention to the first scenes of the duel. Scott has subtly setup whose side we’re on by the color of the horses and the designs on their shields. The horses themselves are sturdy draft horses, with a steady beat and demeanor. The armor that protects the dueling knights from injury on horseback, not only makes them harder to kill, but harder for them to kill.
Jodie Comer as the object of both Le Gris and Carrouges’ desire is luminous and intelligent. She listens to the servants as her husband could but does not. She’s helps him temper his outbursts, but hat leads to her meeting Le Gris and the initial kiss. Comer is much smaller than Driver, making the possibility of force believable. Her Marguerite is often seen illuminated by her long, loose golden hair, perhaps in a hairstyle choice that was uncommon for a woman of her status at the time. Comer conveys the complexity of Marguerite’s dilemma, not in love with her husband, but faithful and not met with an intellectual equal but always in danger.
The film clearly shows the price of considering women as property and the extreme courage of Marguerite. Think of this as a direct descendent of “The Trojan Women.” That Europides’ Greek tragedy (made into a 1971 movie directed by Cypriot-Greek director Mihalis Kakogiannis starring Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave) told of the fate of the noblewomen of Troy after the defeat, lamenting their future as slaves and concubines. The attitude, even centuries later, explains some of what happened at Nuremberg and the Tokyo war crimes trials when the topic of rape was brought up and not prosecuted. More recently consider how Otto Preminger’s 1959 “Anatomy of a Murder” (starring James Stewart) portrays the murder of a man by the husband claims raped his wife. The defense used, “irresistible impulse,” is a version of the temporary insanity defense that had been used in the trials of Harry Thaw decades earlier (1907) for the murder of Stanford White (portrayed in the 1981 film “Ragtime” from the 1975 historical novel of the same name).
Rape, it was argued by Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book, “Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” had been defined by men even though the victims were primarily women, and rape had been used as a means of perpetuating the subordination of women. In this respect, “The Last Duel” is a reminder of how we came to this current rape culture, the remnants of which we can see in the contemporary #MeToo admissions, confessions and angry declarations.
One wonders if at the end of “The Last Duel” more than a few women were having their #MeToo moments and if mothers and fathers of lower ranks were sighing in relief at the outcome, if Marguerite’s brave stand didn’t encourage some women to step into the light or at least have hope. Marguerite’s section of the truth is played with nuance and sensitivity. Even knowing the outcome, Scott gives the audience reason to squirm at the edge of their seats and wonder when will it end? When will the final blow be dealt?
It’s grim to think we are only recently stepping into the light, away from a world where “there’s no right; there’s only the power of men,” and possibly bringing forth a measure of justice for women in a world where “God will spare those who tell the truth and the truth will prevail” without the caprice of dueling men.
“The Last Duel” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on 10 September 2021 and will be released in the US on 15 October 2021 by 20th Century Studios.