#432: The Last Duel
Ridley Scott’s latest historical drama reminds us that there’s three sides to every story: one side, the other side, and the truth.
Initial release: 2021
Director: Ridley Scott
(Content warning: this review discusses sexual assault.)
When you hear about the premise of Ridley Scott’s latest in a long line of period pieces, you might ask, why make a movie about a rape? Who do you think you are, Wes Craven? And sure, it’s a fair question to ask, given the proclivity for Hollywood (and the international film industry at large) to frame sexual assault, harassment, toxic romance, and general incellous behavior as titillating or even romantic. But The Last Duel is an attempt at repudiating that.
To be clear, The Last Duel isn’t really about the titular fight to the death. The film opens with a brief glimpse at it, but then winds back the clock to show us how we got here. The film is split into three segments, each marked as The truth according to one of the three main characters, each going over the same time period and, where they intersect, the same scenes — but with differences both subtle and face-crushingly obvious.
First we get Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon,) a grumpy, filthy, put-upon knight who feels like the world is pissing on him from on high. His version of events portrays him as this jovial, heroic figure who loves his wife Marguerite, and feels like everyone else has turned against him, as lands promised to him as part of a dowry suddenly get rugpulled (to borrow a term from crypto bros) and his attempts to find redress result in him losing stature (and, indeed, a captaincy that was promised to him.) When he comes home from a trip one night, his wife tells him that she was raped by his old friend Jacques.
That would be Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver,); his depiction of the events is radically different from Jean’s, as Jean isn’t the hero leading a charge at the Battle of Limoges as he portrays himself, but rather a brash idiot Leeroy Jenkinsing himself towards the enemy, forcing Jacques and the rest of the French forces to charge in after him, consequently allowing the English to re-capture Limoges. Subsequent retreads of earlier scenes as well as new ones from Jacques’ perspective reveal that there was no great conspiracy to ruin Jean’s life, but pure politics. But make no mistake — Jacques is a fuckboy who’s quite full of himself, and this retelling of the events is extremely self-aggrandizing, to the point that he views the rape as consensual, that Marguerite was just playing hard to get to keep up appearances.
Which leads us to The Truth according to Marguerite, the title card slowly fading out the last three words to make clear that Marguerite’s version of events is the one the film views as what actually happened, portraying the two men as they really are: a cold, cruel husband (with an even crueler mother in law) and a rapacious fuckboy, and the event that leads to the duel as the brutal assault that it really is, not the sinful little game that Jacques thinks it is; and while she wants justice, Jean centers it around himself, and uses it as an excuse to fight his old frenemy to the death — a situation that would not go well for Marguerite if he were to lose.
Marguerite (played impeccably by Jodie Comer) is probably the only truly likeable character in the film; she’s smart and kind, hanging on to her husband even as he repeatedly disappoints her in bed and treats her like a servant (or as property, which the film repeatedly presses as being not just common, but legally sanctioned in medieval France.) She does a better job of managing the house than he ever could, as he is interested only in warfare and how it can improve his status.
It’s not often films go out of their way to center women in their own rape. More typically they’re treated as props, something to spur male characters into revenge (and, indeed, that’s exactly how Jean approaches the problem, as he views the assault on Marguerite as an assault on him, and his choice of method in redressing this issue is violence against his former friend, because that’s all he knows or understands.) But Marguerite’s segment gets the lion’s share of the screen time, and it’s telling what the characters say or do, or don’t say or do, from one segment to the next. (A key difference is how Jean reacts to Marguerite telling him what happened, vs how it’s portrayed in Jean’s segment. From his perspective, she says, “I was raped,” and after demanding to know who did it, he gently holds her and blames himself for not being there. In her version, she specifically names Jacques, at which point he flies into a violent rage and insinuates she might be at fault, before unbuckling his belt and saying he doesn’t want Jean to be the last man to have sex with her.)
This is a film that tries to be about women in a man’s world, but ultimately is about men posturing in a world full of men posturing. Even the titular duel, which the film neglects to clarify is the last legally sanctioned one in France’s history, is less about Marguerite, and more about the wounded egos of Jean and Jacques, though Marguerite makes it clear that she’s unhappy about the whole thing, least of all the fact that if Jean loses, she’s to be burned at the stake — a little factoid Jean neglected to tell her about.
It’s not all bad: the film as a whole generally works as a portrayal of medieval gender politics while also drawing a pretty direct line to how little those gender politics have changed today; at one point, an official at the trial even outright echoes former US representative Todd Akin’s absurd “legitimate rape” claim that human bodies can detect when a rape is happening and prevent pregnancy. And while rape victims of today don’t necessarily have to fear being burned at the stake for coming forward, that doesn’t mean coming forward isn’t a huge risk to their own personal safety.
But where the film sort of frustrates is that as much time as Marguerite is given, as much weight as her perspective has on the narrative, she’s rather underdeveloped as a character. Things mostly happen to her rather than the other way around; her insistence on maintaining the accusation is about the most she’s able to really express herself, which centers her character in her trauma.
At the very least, she gets the last laugh, and that, perhaps, will have to do.