CW: Sexual Assault
“The Last Duel” premiered on Sept. 10, 2021, showcasing its Akira Kurosawa-esque tale of the historic last judicial trial by duel in 1386 France. The story leads the audience through an interpretation of the events of the time, showing each character’s different perspectives, which weaves together into a final narrative that uses medieval tropes to highlight some of the medieval ways we still treat female victims in cases of sexual assault.
For context, the trial in question is the true story of Marguerite de Carrouges’ (Jodie Comer) accusation of rape by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire and former friend to Marguerite’s husband Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon). This already star-studded cast is added to with pivotal performances by Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d’Alençon and Alex Lawther as King Charles VI. The movie is broken into four sections, the first three each labeled the “truth” of the character, which follows their perspective and interpretation of the events, culminating in the titular final, judicial duel, between Jean and Jacques to determine the truth of whether Marguerite was assaulted or not.
Ridley Scott, the famed director of the movie, begins the film slowly in the truth of Jean de Carrouges. Jean’s truth is his life as a nobleman with a historical name, and he has all the pride one would expect from that caricature. His story covers a few moments in his life which are mirrored in the stories of the other two: we see his friendship and falling out with Jaques, his marriage to Marguerite for her father’s money, his fight in the crusades, and eventually his response to Marguerite’s accusation of rape which results in the titular duel.
Following this section, we flip perspective to see how the situation came to be from Jacques Le Gris’ point of view. We again start with Jacques and Jean’s friendship in which Jacques stands up for Jean’s abilities despite his poor decision-making. However, the trajectory of his story changes after Jacques begins working for the Count, who hosts what can only be described as orgies into which Jacques is drawn. Later on, Jacques starts to take a liking to Marguerite, and he immediately assumes they are in love. Next, we see him enter her home, propose his ‘love,’ and then chase her to the bedroom in a manner that he views as coy and encouraging. He assaults her and then asks Marguerite to keep his actions a secret and leaves. He later hears of the accusation of rape and, after the Count tries to get the charges dissmissed, Jacques is forced by honor and by law to fight Jean.
Lastly, we see the most poignant of all the perspectives, Marguerite’s. After some retreading of previous plot points, her story picks up with her interaction with Jacques, which seems much more tame than in his truth. We then see the same scene with her and Jacques’ almost beat by beat, but without any of the affectations which made the first scene almost palatable. Instead of a situation of plausible yet dubious consort, we are left with what can only be seen as sexual assult; the same actions performed instead with heart-wrenching fear from Marguerite and a brutal, heartless determination by Jacques.
The scene loses all possibility of being seen as anything other than rape, and any nuance is gone. We are left wanting to see how Marguerite can receive justice. Following this, we see Marguerite explain the situation to Jean, and then transition to the formal trial of her claims in front of the king and his court. She receives very intrusive questions about her sex life and more pointedly about whether she enjoyed the assault. The audience can see the pain that comes from having to suffer questions like that in public but despite that she weathers it out. The trial ends and leads into the final section, the duel.
I will not mention who wins and whether Marguerite is burned at the stake for a false confession or is proved correct. Either way, the end result does not change the brilliant framing and work that the movie did in capturing the plight of women in the fourteenth century and the lengths that need to be taken for her to receive justice for her assault. However, a few other choices are made that add to the film.
To further add to the critique, we are given a contrasting experience from Jean’s mother. In Marguerite’s truth, her mother-in-law told her that she had also been assaulted as well but fiercely said that she did not “run off to her lord” but moved on. Although this is one of the more heavily critiqued moments in the film, I believe it adds context to the systems by which, even amongst women, abuse and assault are tolerated, and those who speak out are shamed.
Also, Jacques, even in the dead of combat, continues to deny that he raped Marguerite but it becomes clear that this is because he believes that Marguerite really did love him and that the entire affair was consensual. This absolutely floored me when I first watched it as it inverted the expected absolute denial with instead a delusion only made possible by a society that supported his flagrant and harmful behavior.
With each truth given, the story becomes more complex, but the layering approach weaves together what would be separate stories into concrete messages. The structure of the film was off-putting at first, but the film continued to elaborate on itself instead of repeating known information. I was caught off guard many times as the meaning of the selected scenes fell into place, all the while painting a consistent picture of a wider world in strife. I thought, in particular, Matt Damon stood out in his role as Jean De Carrouges. He disappeared into the role but he also worked incredibly well with Jodie Comer who was able to tell Marguerite’s story better than I imagine any other actor could.
While being a historic tale of rape and duels, the movie is specific enough and masterful in craft and execution to show the barriers women had to and still deal with both legally and socially to receive justice for the crimes against them and the systems which protect and encourage men to commit them. “The Last Duel” was, unfortunately, a flop in the box office, but I do not think this reflects at all on its quality. While there are mild moments of virtue signaling, the performances mainly lead the audience to its conclusions, leading to many moments of realization for even an amateur moviegoer. I highly rate this movie and encourage anyone who has the time to view this modern classic with an ancient lens.