Warning: This review contains spoilers of both historical events and specific plot points in the film, The Last Duel.
It’s impossible to see a trailer or a poster for The Last Duel and not hear the tagline, “The True Story of One Woman Who Defied a Nation.” But that line is a generous description of a film that is, at its core, the story of two men who used a woman’s trauma to fight a legal death match.
In order to explain why Ridley Scott’s new film doesn’t quite work, it is necessary to peek, just for a moment, into the real history of Jean de Carrouges, his wife Marguerite, Jacques Le Gris, and the Count Pierre d’Alençon. The Wikipedia version of events (or in this case, Smithsonian Magazine) essentially lays out a tale of two men, Carrouges and Le Gris, squires in service to the count, who forge the unbreakable bond of wartime brotherhood. But when Carrouges continues to go off and fight endless wars, Le Gris stays home and forms an even tighter friendship with the count, eventually receiving land and a place of honor in the count’s business dealings. When Le Gris receives a title that Carrouges feels is rightfully his, their bond is, in fact, breakable and permanently severed. In 1386, Jean’s wife the Lady Marguerite de Carrouges accuses Le Gris of rape, a charge that is apparently just as hard to prove today as it was 700 years ago, and Carrouges and Le Gris end up fighting it out in a trial by combat legally approved by the Parlement de Paris and presided over by King Charles IV.
The first two acts of The Last Duel, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck respectively, tell the story from each man’s side. First we see Carrouges (Matt Damon), a good and noble man who lost a wife and child and is now alone in the world and without an heir. The writing is clunky, often including large swaths of dialogue that sound nothing like actual conversation between humans. He battles with the English and meets Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the young and marriageable daughter of Robert of Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). He finds himself on the receiving end of a string of insults from Count d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who has given land and titles to Le Gris (Adam Driver) instead. When he returns from Scotland a knight, Marguerite tearfully tells him that she was raped by his now-nemesis, Jacques Le Gris. So determined is Carrouges to defend his wife’s honor, he will fight to the death to prove her innocence!
Of course, Le Gris has a different version of events, and as act two begins to lay out his side of the story, with it comes a lot of repeated scenes that are only slightly — albeit importantly — different. From microexpressions and hand gestures to who really saved who on a riverbank in Limoges, what amounts to two eyewitness accounts of a series of events is unchanged enough that seeing them all repeated feels like little more than a peacock showing off its feathers.
In these two acts, we learn all about the bitter feud between former friends, we see different facets of their personalities and the different ways they perceive the Lady Marguerite. And herein lies the problem with The Last Duel. What we don’t see in this “story of a woman who defied a nation” is the woman herself, who is rarely heard and frequently off screen until the third act, when writer Nicole Holofcener gives the Lady her due. But it’s too late. Holofcener does a commendable job of establishing a capable, strong, and intelligent woman who is very much used and taken advantage of by all the men in her life. Again we see repeated versions of events where expressions and gestures and certain conversations take on a different meaning when told from another perspective. For Marguerite, the “kind” Jean de Carrouges is grumpy, constantly focused on the ways he has been wronged, an ungenerous lover, and somewhat cruel. Le Gris is handsome and untrustworthy, which is why she is afraid when he shows up at her door while her husband is away.
This brings us to the most objectionable part of The Last Duel, a film that is supposed to be about a rape accusation and how that accusation is resolved in the 14th century. To their credit, Ridley Scott and all three writers take the stance that this was very definitely rape and that regardless of the outcome of the trial, we should believe women. Unfortunately, the way they let us know this happened is to show it in very graphic detail — twice. Even in Le Gris’ version of events, when he interprets actions and statements differently, the fact of rape is clear to the viewer. There is no attempt to leave room for the possibility that this was a false accusation or that there might have been a way for him to have misunderstood how his actions were taken. The goal is good, but the execution is flawed. There are plenty of ways to communicate the truth without showing a horrifyingly graphic scene. And then to show it again with virtually no difference in the events is not only traumatizing, but also insults the intelligence of viewers who are perfectly capable of understanding without needing to see and hear it.
And then, when it has been established for the audience that this did happen and that Le Gris is absolutely guilty, the legally sanctioned duel commences with hundreds of onlookers, the giddy boy King cheering the violence, the Lady Marguerite awaiting her own fate at the outcome. By this point, though, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses the duel. Because as much as we want Marguerite to be vindicated, as much as we hope she will ultimately prevail, the anger and the violence and the blood on that field is not about her at all. It is the culmination of many years of increasing tension between two men who used a woman as an excuse to fight for their own bruised egos.
The Last Duel is well-intentioned and includes some great acting, particularly from Jodie Comer whose star is on the rise. And for those who have been missing a big, epic action movie with a lot of medieval swordplay and questionable accents, this has something to offer. But as a film that builds itself up about believing women and honoring their value, it takes every one of them for granted, putting the men at the forefront while frequently reminding us that they don’t deserve to be there and that we’ll still be dealing with these issues seven centuries later.
The Last Duel is now playing in theaters nationwide.