When a woman receives unwanted attention from a man, is she playing coy or legitimately saying “no”, to which the man is morally obligated to listen? The consequence of him going further is that it become rape; intimacy without consent. The woman then might opt to tell others, too often just to be told that she’s lying, that she invited it, that she didn’t protest or fight the advances with sufficient vigor, that women ‘secretly’ want to be forced into intimacy, or a host of other crass justifications and rationalizations. We don’t have to leave the entertainment industry to see this play out writ large in the headlines with villains like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Danny Masterson.
That’s why director Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel proves such an interesting film. Rooted in a famous historical rivalry in late 1300s France between hothead French knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend turned royal courtier Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). It’s Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) who is raped by Le Gris, but it’s the men who have the conflict. After all, in 14th Century France, wives are considered the property of their husbands, not individuals with agency.
The film takes place mostly during The Hundred Year Wars of France vs. England, during which time Jean de Carrouges has grown to become a well-respected Norman knight, extolled for his bravery on the battlefield. He’s still a bit of a country bumpkin, however, and in court is not infrequently the butt of everyone’s joke or the subject of teasing by the King’s cousin the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). The War and the Plague have devastated Norman France, and everyone is struggling to earn – or tax – the funds needed to run their estates. In an effort to raise his status and land holdings, de Carrouges marries Marguerite (Comer), daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). Out of love? Probably not, though he’s an earnest, albeit clumsy husband. For the dowry? Yes. He gains possession of a vast tract of land, with the exception of one, particularly fertile valley. That was supposed to be part of the dowry, but it’s been claimed by Count d’Alençon and thereby gifted to Le Gris. Needless to say, de Carrouges is not happy. He’s so unhappy that he sues the Count, claiming it should rightfully be his land, not that of Le Gris.
As is too often the case in this sort of situation, the result is that he not only doesn’t regain his land – in 1300s France, the King’s word is the law, no questions asked – but he also makes an enemy of the Count. It’s then no surprise when later the Count grants a tremendous boon to Le Gris as a slap in the face to de Carrouges. Meanwhile, Le Gris, a famous lover who seems to have slept with every woman in court, has been flirting with Margueritte. Both of them are well-read in an era when books are a rarity, and polylingual, finding each other a kindred spirit. de Caourrouges cannot help notice the flirtation but is strapped for cash and must endlessly leave to fight for the King and earn money. In the end, he’s a mercenary.
Meanwhile, his mother, the sour and manipulative Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) endlessly fumes at Margauritte’s inability to bear an heir for her son and the family. After all, his first wife bore children with him, even if they all died in the Plague. She callously abandons Margauritte at their manor, and that’s when Le Gris shows up, excited to find that it’s the two of them with no servants. Finally, a chance to consummate their flirtation. But while he’s excited about her coy rejection, she genuinely pushes him away and insists he leaves immediately. Or does she? And then, when she admits what’s happened to de Carrouges, it’s devastating. He initially reacts with jealous anger and disbelief, but as he comes to believe her, his hatred of Le Gris boils over.
When accusing Le Gris of rape directly to the foppish, infantile and easily distracted King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) fails to produce the outcome he desires, the gauntlet is thrown down and de Carrouges challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death. “Let God decide who is telling the truth!” Of course, if de Carrouges is killed, Margauritte will be assumed to have been lying and will be summarily burned too, but that’s secondary; this is a challenge of honor between men.
Where The Last Duel is particularly interesting is that it’s presented in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with each of the main players telling their biased and personal version of the flirtation and rape. Each is the narcissistic center of their own tale, as would be expected, leaving the viewer to weigh and assess the veracity of each and the ultimate truth of the story. Was Marguerite truly raped or did she invite the amorous attentions of Le Gris with her behaviors, then play coy and have a change of heart at the last minute?
Scott knows that this topic remains a sensitive one to women and men alike and handles the story deftly. There’s surprisingly little nudity shown on screen, with the camera’s attention much more on the faces of the individuals than their body parts. As a very modern counterpoint, the frequent warfare scenes and final and infamous duel are filmed with grit and verisimilitude, offering a remarkable sense of presence. Indeed, the duel between Le Gris and de Carrouges is one of the most realistic captured on screen. It’s intense.
The film is also desaturated and mostly shot in low-light settings, leading to a muddy presentation on screen. It’s similar to The Green Knight, which also suffers from an endlessly muted color palette. Accurate it may be since there were obviously no bright electric lights in the 1300s, but it can cause viewers to have their attention stray and will undoubtedly be difficult to watch on a home theater screen. The film also has quite a running time, just over 2 1/2 hours, though it felt just a bit slow in parts, not bloated and overwrought.
The Last Duel is a fascinating and powerfully acted film that’s just as much about a woman assaulted and willing to risk her life to attain justice as it is about a self-absorbed man who is willing to sacrifice everything to defend his “honor”. With different leads, this would be a great indie arthouse movie and would find its audience. But with Damon, Comer, Affleck, and Driver, there’s a lot of star power on the screen, which might well confuse potential views into thinking they’re paying to see a medieval knight’s adventure. The Last Duel might be set in that era and have battle scenes, but it’s trying to be much more serious and thoughtful than that. And, for the most part, it succeeds. Recommended.
Dad At The Movies Note: While pre-teens and tweens might be too young to grasp the nuances of the central crime and narrative device of multiple viewpoints, the bigger issue with young audiences is that they’ll get bored. This really isn’t a film for younger viewers, but older teens might find it quite compelling and it can certainly open up some important discussions with your children post-viewing.