We’re gonna need to have a serious talk before we dive into this one.
The Last Duel is an unusually long movie about a lot of highly important and sensitive topics. Put more simply, it’s a movie about a rape. It’s a movie with extensively detailed discussions and graphic depictions of sexual assault, the ensuing trauma, the pressure to stay quiet, living under the cloud of stigma and doubt, and the treatment of women as property. This is a movie about living with all of the above under a system built of, by, and for wealthy old white men who are inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to other wealthy old white men.
If any of this is potentially triggering, I encourage you to close the review now, with the humble advice to think long and extremely carefully about seeing the film in question. Your mental/emotional health matters far more than any movie. (Ditto for your physical health — if you’re still uncomfortable seeing a film in a theater in a time of literal plague, that’s your call.)
If you’re still here, then you’d best buckle up — we’ve got a lot to get through.
The eponymous duel is so called because it was famously the last legally approved duel in French history, back in December of 1386. The major players are Jacques Le Gris (here played by Adam Driver), Sir Jean de Carrouges (producer/co-writer Matt Damon), and Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). The film is split into three chapters, dramatizing the same timeline from the three perspectives of each character. The details differ between accounts, but all agree on the following facts in summary.
De Carrouges was born to a great military family, set to inherit a captaincy upon his father’s death. Le Gris came from poverty and rose up through the ranks until he was worthy to fight beside De Carrouges and the two treasured each other as friends and brothers in arms. All of that changed with the rise of Count Pierre d’Alencon (co-producer/co-writer Ben Affleck), who is now the lord and immediate superior to both men.
Long story short, Pierre takes an immediate dislike to De Carrouges and sees a kindred spirit in Le Gris. Thus begins a disturbing pattern in which Pierre robs De Carrouges out of petty spite and gives to Le Gris as a reward for his service. A tract of land is promised to De Carrouges, so Pierre takes that land in lieu of overdue taxes and gives it to Le Gris. De Carrouges’ father dies, and Pierre gives the captaincy — De Carrouges’ birthright! — to Le Gris.
While all of this is going on, De Carrouges is going bankrupt and he’s still in need of a male heir. Enter Marguerite, daughter of a disgraced Norman lord, who is wed to De Carrouges. Several years later, De Carrouges is still going bankrupt (through the double-whammy of an ongoing plague and interference from Pierre), so he goes out of town to earn money through military service. (As a reminder, Britain and France were perpetually at war with each other through all of human history right up until, like, World War I.) Then Marguerite’s mother-in-law (played as a perfectly detestable crone by Harriet Walter) inexplicably leaves Marguerite alone and unattended at home.
This is when Le Gris breaks into the house and rapes Marguerite. The film leaves absolutely no room for debate on this, the rape most definitely happens. We see it twice with our own eyes, from the perspectives of both Le Gris and Marguerite. Quite notably, Le Gris’ depiction is considerably less violent, with less screaming and struggling from Marguerite.
Anyway, De Carrouges knows perfectly well that he won’t get any justice going through the proper channels (read: Pierre). Instead, he takes to the streets, encouraging the story of Le Gris’ crime to spread through all of Normandy. At the same time, De Carrouges goes over Pierre’s head and appeals directly to the king (played with spoiled sociopathic glee by Alex Lawther).
(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that this is the same King Charles VI who would later be known as “King Charles the Mad”. The guy was so incompetent that his army got their asses kicked by far inferior numbers at the infamous Battle of Agincourt, which in turn meant that France lost the Hundred Years’ War because of him. So kudos to the filmmakers for making it perfectly clear that we’re not supposed to like or respect this guy for any reason.)
Le Gris repeatedly denies the accusations while Marguerite swears up and down that he raped her (and of course the both of them know perfectly damn well what happened), but neither one of them has any proof. Thus De Carrouges argues that the only way to definitively prove anything is to duel Le Gris and let God grant victory to the innocent while the guilty dies. I might add that by this logic, Le Gris never committed the rape if he comes away from the duel victorious. Thus not only will De Carrouges be publicly slain in the duel, but Marguerite will be burned at the stake for bringing false accusations of rape and lying under oath.
We’ve got all of this going on, seen from three different viewpoints, over a 153-minute movie. So where do we begin breaking all of this down?
First off, though all three accounts agree on the major details, there are subtle and crucial differences that keep the film from getting too repetitive. Little things that make a huge difference, such as who said what in which order. To say nothing of the scenes and moments that one character expounds in great detail while another character omits entirely.
Speaking of little things, it really is astounding how the film packs so many relevant details into the runtime. Little reactions from the background characters that show so much about their state of mind. For instance, I don’t even think Queen Isabeau (Serena Kennedy) gets a single line, but her reactions, her body language, and her expressions during the trial all speak volumes.
Perhaps most importantly, the title cards introduce each chapter as “the truth” according to each character. De Carrouges, Le Gris, and Marguerite are not hiding anything or embellishing anything or making any attempt to make themselves look good for the audience. Each chapter is the full and unblemished truth as each character sees it.
HOWEVER, the title card for Marguerite gently yet firmly establishes that her account is “the truth”, period. The filmmakers are not both-sidesing it here, they clearly want everyone to know that her depiction is what really happened. Plus, Marguerite’s tale takes up the back half of the film, so she gets the last word and the longest word. Thusly, while the men of the story have their say, it’s the female lead who ultimately gets put front and center. I appreciate and respect that.
Of course, it certainly helps that while the thoroughly proven writer/producer team of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are on board, it’s the battle-tested and Oscar-worthy writer/producer Nicole Holofcener who gets top billing over both of them. The film absolutely benefits from such a powerful female creative voice on board, and it pays especially huge dividends in the character beats and social commentary in the back half.
A particular highlight comes just after Marguerite tells her husband about the rape, and De Carrouges immediately makes the whole incident all about his own pain and suffering. Another great moment comes during the trial, in which an old white man stands up and exclaims — with absolutely zero self-awareness or irony — that rape cannot cause pregnancy. I mean, it’s the Middle Ages and people back then had no medical knowledge of the human body or the female body in particular, but are we really any better off all these centuries later?
But then we have the scenes in which Marguerite is slut-shamed, with the accusation that she probably wanted an affair with Le Gris, as she had previously said him to be handsome. Marguerite is also reprimanded because she publicly accused a wealthy and powerful man of taking a woman, as the wealthy and powerful are wont to do. Marguerite disrupted the status quo, associating the family name with filthy gossip, instead of taking the sexual assault quietly and getting on with her life as so many other women before her have done. The kicker: Both of these confrontations come from female supporting characters. These are other women trying to shut Marguerite down. These scenes could only have been written by such a strong and talented female creative voice as Holofcener.
As for the male leads, we eventually get a picture of De Carrouges as a solider with no idea of how to peacefully conduct life or business off the battlefield. Compare that to Le Gris, who’s far more capable of navigating his way through court and kissing the right asses. De Carrouges whines about how he’s fought and bled for his nation, and he’s repaid for it with nothing but Pierre’s theft and treachery, which is a fair enough complaint. But then, it’s tough to ignore the fact that De Carrouges was born into a powerful military family and thus had everything handed to him, while Le Gris had to work and study hard to get what he currently has.
Then we have their attitudes towards women. As much as De Carrouges seems to genuinely care for his wife, he’s obsessed with siring a male heir. Likewise, a great deal of screen time is spent on De Carrouges’ treatment of his horses, treating them less like living creatures and more like cash machines that churn out foals to be sold at a profit. In the other corner, Le Gris and Pierre are frequently seen drinking and fucking with various beautiful women. In one scene, the filmmakers even go so far as to show Le Gris playfully chasing around some whore exactly as he will later do with Marguerite.
Put simply, De Carrouges is an entitled caveman who thinks entirely in terms of brute strength and sees everything (including women) as property to be divvied up. Compare that to Le Gris, a smooth talker and a rampant womanizer more skilled at manipulation than open warfare, easily seduced by the carnal and material pleasures he never had growing up.
Perhaps most importantly, the both of them are rank hypocrites who use religious piety, court politics, rule of law, and other trappings of society when they suit their own ends, and shamelessly flout them when they don’t. To wit, Le Gris (the notorious womanizer, remember) confesses his rape to a priest — one who is all to eager to find some asinine biblical justification for raping another man’s wife in clear violation of the Commandments — and because God has purged his sins, that’s enough for him to declare his innocence. Meanwhile, De Carrouges shouts about court politics until he’s blue in the face, about how he fought and bled for a king who wouldn’t last a day on any battlefield, but there’s not a word of that when he needs the king to approve a trial by combat.
In all honesty, I didn’t even care which of the two won the duel at the end. Yes, I was rooting for De Carrouges, but not because I wanted him to win — I wanted Marguerite to win. I wanted Le Gris to die because it was the only way that Marguerite would get any semblance of justice under this cruel, unfair, mindless, utterly fucked-up system. Gotta say, that was a hell of a trick Ridley Scott pulled, getting the audience into that headspace.
Jodie Comer once again proves herself to be a versatile powerhouse talent who more than deserves a shot at the A-list immediately (see also: Free Guy). Adam Driver and Matt Damon both turn in marvelous and transformative performances as well. And of course we’ve got Ben Affleck, who gleefully leans full-tilt into playing a frivolous, conceited, solipsistic bastard. It speaks volumes that Pierre is the only character who’s perfectly identical in all three versions, because anyone with functioning eyes would immediately peg Pierre as a preening dickbag who wants just enough power that he can do anything he wants with no real responsibility.
This movie absolutely belongs to these four, but credit is also due to Alex Lawther, Marton Csokas, Nathaniel Parker, Tallulah Haddon, Harriet Walter, Serena Kennedy, Zeljko Ivanek, and any number of other talents who admirably broaden the scope of this picture and help to make our leading characters look so much better.
But of course this is a Ridley Scott picture, and it’s impossible to forget that this was made by the man who gave us Gladiator. The battlefield scenes are utterly brutal, and the big climactic duel is thoroughly gripping stuff. The sound design is unflinching, the choreography is solid, the stunts look incredible… the shaky-cam is more than a little distracting, but still. This is bloody and muddy stuff, primal and visceral in the best way.
The Last Duel is certainly a tad repetitive and overlong, given the film’s unique structure. I certainly wish the film had been given to a female director, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Ridley Scott was far more interested in those stellar battlefield sequences than the in-depth discussion about sexual assault. Still, Scott is a master filmmaker, the entire cast is at the top of the game, the action scenes are indeed quite impressive, and the discussion that we do get about the subject is comprehensive and compelling.
It’s an excellent work of historical fiction, one that uses the past to illuminate the present and how far we have (not) come in the time since. The length and the subject matter make this a difficult film to watch, but it’s well worth the effort.