The Last Duel – Film Review
Cast: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Director: Ridley Scott
Synopsis: In Medieval France, following an accusation of rape against his wife, a Knight challenges his former friend to a trial by combat…
Review: For as long as humanity has been around, our society has been a patriarchal one, with men more often than not in positions of power. At numerous points throughout history, and even in modern times, such men try to exhibit control over the lives of women and dictate the choices that they should be allowed to make with their own bodies. The Me Too Movement has forced us as a society to bring about change to the systemic belittlement, and sometimes ridicule, women get for coming forward when they’ve been a victim of sexual assault. While progress has been made, enter Ridley Scott with a powerful medieval drama that demonstrates that is a centuries-old problem that still exists in our society.
The setting is 14th century France, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is an esteemed knight in the French army. He offers his hand in marriage to the beautiful Marguerite (Comer). Despite her marriage to Jean, Marguerite has another admirer, the squire Jacques Le Gris (Driver). When Le Gris’s attempts to woo Marguerite are unsuccessful, he brutally forces himself upon her. When Marguerite bravely stands up to accuse Le Gris of rape, it is determined that the matter will be settled in a trial by combat between Jean de Carrouges and Le Gris. There’s added pressure too for Marguerite because if her husband loses, she will be sentenced to death for false testimony.
Set in three distinct acts, each act recounts the events from three perspectives: Jean de Carrouages, Jacques Le Gris, and most importantly of all, Marguerite de Carrouages. Each act breaks down the person’s perspective on the events that preceded the horrendous crime, the crime itself, and the aftermath. The first act from Jean’s perspective, written by Damon, shows Jean as a very courageous, likable, and loyal man. Yet his efforts in battle are not well rewarded, with Le Gris getting the plaudits and the rewards that Jean clearly feels should be bestowed upon him. Despite his grievances at these slights, Jean initially refuses to hold a grudge against Le Gris.
The second act, from the perspective of Le Gris (written by Affleck), paints Le Gris as a man who is studious and good at numbers, which helps him favourably with his commander, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). As well as his studiousness, he clearly sees himself as a handsome chap who is popular with the ladies. Consequently, because of his bewitching good looks, all the ladies must surely want him as well. Not even a married woman like Marguerite could possibly turn down his advances. So when she does exactly that, he forces himself upon her when Jean is not at home. While there’s no attempt to deny or downplay what he did, in his mind, it is completely inconsequential due to the belief in his mind that Marguerite is unhappy with her marriage, and must have secretly yearned for it.
It isn’t until we arrive at the third and final perspective, that of Marguerite’s, that the film truly soars. This segment, written by Nicole Holofcener, is by far the strongest of the three acts. It puts us from the perspective of the person who matters the most in this tale. We see Marguerite as a woman who defies what society expects of her, playing an active role in the maintenance and upkeep of her husband’s properties while he is off fighting in wars. And crucially, we see from her perspective, the character flaws that exist in both Jean and Le Gris, that they are both completely oblivious to. While all of the performances around her are strong, Jodie Comer is, quite simply, head and shoulders above everyone else. Though, by telling this from two different perspectives, be warned, we are forced to watch this heinous crime a couple of times.
However, as uncomfortable as it is to watch such an unspeakable act of violence a couple of times, it feels integral to the plot to do so. The reason being is that it emphasises the contrasting emotions of both parties concerned. While there’s no pain for Le Gris, there’s a tremendous amount of pain, both physical and emotional, that is inflicted upon Marguerite, and by extension for Jean as well. To add insult to injury, at this time in history, rape was incredulously not considered to be a crime against a woman, but rather a crime against a man and his property. Hence, at a time when women were expected to be silent and to be subordinates to their husbands, it is incredibly courageous for Marguerite to speak out and level this accusation against Le Gris, which sets the stage for the titular duel.
Ridley Scott is no stranger to a medieval, swords and lances battleground. Given everything that has been established in the events leading up to it, the stakes could not be higher for these characters. As you would expect, Scott’s direction for this bloody battle to the death is marvellous and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Though as important as the duel is, what is of far more importance is how Marguerite’s story is still relevant in the society that we live in. Too often, after being subjected to unspeakable acts of male violence, women are powerless or are unable to bring the perpetrators to justice due to our patriarchal society. But, as this centuries-old tale proves, when women have the courage to speak out, they demand our attention as a society every time. Their words are powerful and must never ever fall on deaf ears.