“A spotlight on historic societal misogyny and disbelief of women”: what The Last Duel gets right and wrong
The Last Duel is a Rashomon-style epic, telling three different versions, but only one ‘truth’, of a heinous crime and its violent conclusion on the duelling lists. Helen Carr praises the startling and raw performances, but wonders whether more could have been done to bring the voice of the victim to the screen…
Described by film critics as a ‘medieval #MeToo’, The Last Duel, the latest from director Ridley Scott – whose other forays into the historical epic include Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood – is a powerful he-said-she-said parable based on an accusation amongst the nobility of 14th-century France.
The tripartite tale sets the scene in the mud and murk of the Hundred Years’ War, but this is merely a subplot to the personal battles raging between the three lead characters, and the clash in their different perspectives of the same events.
Based on the book of the same name by Eric Jager, The Last Duel is so-called as it is remembered as the final legally sanctioned duel to the death to take place in France. In 1386, former friends Jean de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris put the fate of their cause in God’s hands, fighting a duel to decide after justice had not been done in the courts.
De Carrouges (played by Matt Damon) is a battle-hardened knight, a gruff and often violent man with steadfast morals around loyalty, duty and honour. Le Gris (Adam Driver) is an attractive libertine and educated squire, accused of the rape of de Carrouge’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).
The movie opens with the preparation of the duel itself, with de Carrouges and le Gris being laced into the plate armour and mounting their horses for the first charge with their lances. There is an artistic and historical nod to the nature of the fight with a close-up of a steel gauntlet – to ‘throw down one’s gauntlet’ being the traditional proposition to a duel.
Just as the two men gallop into a full tilt, the viewer is sent back to 1370 and the siege of Limoges, and the origins of the animosity between de Carrouges and le Gris. From this point on, the story is told in a Rashomon-style of three differing versions of events.
The three truths
The first is the “truth” of de Carrouges. At Limoges, both men face the English, who famously slaughtered everyone in the town on the orders of Edward, the Black Prince. Despite recent evidence offering a different story (where it was not the English who carried out the massacre, but the French), the movie sticks with the chronicler Jean Froissart’s telling of events and depicts de Carrouges and le Gris fighting together to avenge the town.
The brothers in arms return to their feudal overlord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), played as an arrogant, womanising aesthete; possibly borrowing aspects of the Duke of Berry’s character, who was famed for furnishing his castles in luxury, commissioning expensive books of hours, and owning a menagerie of exotic animals. D’Alençon, to the disdain of de Carrouges, makes his preference for le Gris crystal clear, adopting the squire into his entourage and snatching land to gift le Gris for his services. This land includes a disputed plot that would have been part of Marguerite’s dowry.
The honourable and defensive de Carrouges does not let this slide and makes his anger plain not only to the count, but le Gris. He then leaves France to war in Scotland: an ill-fated campaign in 1385 when the French allied with the Scottish earls against the English. As director Scott rightly demonstrates, the French found the landscape inhospitable and the food unpalatable. They soon returned home. However, de Carrouges fares well from the expedition and is knighted, something he flaunts before le Gris as soon as possible at a sour meeting in Paris.
But it is on his return to his home that a distraught Marguerite informs him of her assault. He vows that le Gris will answer for his crime, exhibiting genuine concern and love for his wife; that’s his version, at least. When we see Marguerite’s telling of this scene, he is angry and violent towards her, and is clearly more concerned with his own vanity and sense of being wronged.
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After de Carrouge’s “truth” comes Le Gris’ chilling account. He initially aligns with de Carrouges before he buddies up with the count as they both enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle fuelled by wine and women. In a predatory game of catch with a courtesan, he chases her around a room as if she were his prey, exclaiming: “If you run, I will chase you.”
He plays the same ‘game’ and makes the same taunt with Marguerite as, in his eyes, they play a flirtatious chase-dance up to her bedroom. To the love-struck (or lust-struck), insidious and deluded le Gris, her repeated refusals were simply a game that noblewomen must play when they, in fact, want sex. Marguerite offered only “the customary protests”, he declares when accused of rape as if that exonerates him, “because she is a lady”.
Marguerite’s “truth” – which the movie makes unequivocally clear to be the real version – is unsurprisingly very different from either of the men. In a stellar if limited performance, Comer grounds the narrative as the young woman sold into marriage with one expectation, to produce an heir. When there is still no pregnancy after five years, the relationship turns sour, and de Carrouges and his hostile mother, played by Harriet Walter, treat her with icy veneer.
Usually confined to the family chateau – forbidden to leave by de Carrouges – she is left completely alone one day. That is when le Gris rides in with his man-at-arms, who convinces Marguerite to let them in. Le Gris then announces his love for her and, when she walks away, relentlessly pursues her upstairs to the bedroom. The Last Duel leaves the viewers in no doubt that Marguerite is indeed violently and cruelly raped.
Professor Hannah Skoda considers attitudes towards sexual violence in medieval society and brings the stories of courageous women who spoke out against their attackers to the surface
When he finds out, de Carrouges rides to Paris for an audience in front of King Charles VI, played as a giggling teenager as a likely nod to his insanity later in life, when he believed he was made of glass. Marguerite has no legal power to bring a charge against le Gris, so it is her husband who must. He demands a trial by combat and the request is sanctioned, but only after a humiliating trial.
Marguerite is under far greater scrutiny and suspicion than the accused, forced to face grilling questions by a group of men asking whether she experienced any pleasure during the rape. She has also become pregnant, which, one man declares, is scientifically impossible without “the little death”, or orgasm, at the end of sexual intercourse. As for le Gris, he launches into a period of self-pity as his ego is massaged by the licentious D’Alençon.
An opportunity missed?
The Last Duel, with is hammering war horses, clashes of steel, and bloody battle sequences, is the Scott-style epic. It has startling and raw performances, and the titular duel is strikingly shot and paced to build tension to a grisly finale.
But it is largely a commentary on male authority, ego and sense of honour in 14th-century Europe. Marguerite is told to “deny, deny, deny” – a cruel reality for many women who have been told to ignore the unwelcome advances of men – but bravely refuses to do so. In a time when rape was a weapon of war, what is remarkable is that Marguerite’s demand for justice reached the highest echelons of medieval French society.
- Read more: How bloody was medieval life?
Though The Last Duel spotlights historic pervading societal misogyny and disbelief of women, it is the men – Damon and Affleck, who also wrote the movie with Nicole Holofcener, and Driver – who are the real focus of the drama. Historically speaking, there is a howling echo in the archives where the voices of women are absent, and Marguerite’s voice only survived as she spoke through men.
Movies made today, however, have an opportunity to reimagine a life lived. The Last Duel could have lifted Marguerite from the dust of the archive with a little more gusto.
LISTEN: Hannah Skoda explores the bloody and brutal spectacle of trial by combat in the Middle Ages. She reveals how judicial violence was used to settle legal disputes, and recounts some of the most dramatic real cases in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast