Unlike with other misfires of its magnitude, I can at least see what The Last Duel was aiming for. The historical epic, based on a true 14th-century event and directed by Ridley Scott, is a competently made, action-packed film full of lush feasts and bloody sword fights. What’s more, it taps into the zeitgeist — of the 21st century, not the 14th — with determination and zeal.
Good intentions, however, do not always yield good results. The Last Duel is, in essence, a movie about a long tradition: not believing women when they say they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted. But the path the movie takes to remind us of this sordid fact, tortuous by design, is about as subtle as a thwack across the face with a broken lance.
The Last Duel is Matt Damon’s brainchild, based on Eric Jager’s 2005 nonfiction book of the same name. After deciding to make the movie with Scott, who directed Damon in 2015’s The Martian, Damon also brought on his pal and longtime collaborator Ben Affleck to write the screenplay. The pair quickly realized that, given the subject matter, they wanted a female co-writer in the mix too. So they reached out to Nicole Holofcener, who’s written (and sometimes directed) movies like Walking and Talking, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Enough Said. She signed on.
The story they tell is very old and much discussed, both in its time and for centuries after, as Jager noted in Lapham’s Quarterly last year. It concerns the case of Marguerite de Carrouges, a noblewoman who lived in Normandy in the 14th century. In 1386, she reported that, while her husband Sir Jean de Carrouges was traveling, she was raped in the home of her mother-in-law by a squire named Jacques Le Gris. To settle his wife’s accusation, Carrouges — after an appeal to the French king and a lengthy investigation by the Parlement (appellate court) — challenged Le Gris to a duel to the death.
It’s important to note two ways this era differed from ours. One is that because women were considered the legal property of their husbands, Le Gris’s alleged crime was tried as an offense committed against Carrouges, not his wife, though she gave extensive testimony. The other is the 14th century’s widespread belief that a duel of this kind would literally reveal the innocence or guilt of both parties. God, who knew the truth, would allow the innocent man to live and the guilty man to die.
That belief raised the stakes of the duel even higher: If Carrouges died, Marguerite would be burned at the stake, since his death would mean she had been lying all along.
This historical event furnishes the basic plot of The Last Duel, which takes its name from the fact (oddly not explained in the film, unless I was asleep at the wheel somewhere) that the combat between Carrouges and Le Gris was the final state-sanctioned duel in French history. Damon, sporting a medieval mullet and sometimes a sneer, plays Carrouges; his wife Marguerite is portrayed by Jodie Comer, who’s taking on a tough role. Adam Driver is a younger, handsomer Le Gris who grows close to the men’s overlord, the bleach-blond Count Pierre of Alençon (Affleck).
History has served up several accounts of Marguerite’s ordeal, many (if not most) of them shaded by the idea that she, being a woman, was either mistaken, stupid, duped, or just plain lying. Jager emphasized in his Lapham’s Quarterly article how frequently this happened. “Much as Le Gris is said to have silenced Marguerite with his hood,” he observes, “a legion of clerics, historians, and partisans managed to muffle and stifle her story with vague rumors and inconsistent reports that have shrouded the matter almost to the present day.”
With that in mind, part of the goal of The Last Duel is to retell the story — the true story.
The filmmakers structured the story by looping back on it three times: first from Carrouge’s perspective, then Le Gris’s, and finally from Marguerite’s. Affleck and Damon wrote the men’s perspectives, drawing on historical accounts, and Holofcener wrote Marguerite’s. (There are fewer historical first-person accounts from women in that era, for obvious reasons.) Much of the storytelling is lighthearted, jokey, even goofy. Each circles back over the same time period, labeled on screen as “The truth according to” one of the characters. As Marguerite’s segment begins, her name fades from the subtitles, leaving, for just a moment, the words “The truth.”
The Last Duel argues that Marguerite’s version is the correct version. When her story is on screen, we see some things a little bit differently. Carrouges is not the jovial, doting husband he imagines himself to be; he is cold and even cruel, no matter how strenuously Marguerite aims to please him. An encounter between Le Gris and Marguerite that Le Gris recalls as flirtatious is, in Marguerite’s memory, brief and cold. The shifts are subtle, but they’re there.
What doesn’t change (or changes only slightly) is the actual rape, told in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s accounts. Really, it’s not told so much as observed. The film’s point-of-view conceit means that we watch the several-minute-long rape scene twice, presumably to establish that both Le Gris and Marguerite experienced the same reality. Le Gris, however, maintains that their meeting was consensual; Marguerite says she was raped.
Through 21st-century eyes and ethics, Marguerite seems obviously right. We see her scream, cry, and obviously resist, then lie devastated on the bed after Le Gris has assaulted her — inventions of the filmmakers (who consulted advocacy organizations for sexual assault survivors, such as RAINN), but jarringly realistic. Only a monster, having seen that, would be uncertain about what happened.
Le Gris maintains that he and Marguerite, attracted to one another and filled with lust, engaged in consensual intercourse; he also claims she protested at first, as befits a lady of her station. At best, he’s the frat boy who rapes a girl and then says she was drunk and asking for it, or the person who claims the victim was simply being coy and actually wanted to have sex — both heinous actions. At worst, he’s also lying, abhorrently.
Coupled with some clanky, clunky lines explaining 14th-century ethics (does anyone really need to be told women were considered property back then?), the film’s point is made: History has been bad to women, and none of this cruelty is new. If The Last Duel sometimes gets a little ham-fisted about its aims, well, that’s Hollywood. (Consider the line where a cleric declares, “A rape cannot cause pregnancy. This is just science!” Somehow, I doubt he said it just like that.)
But there’s bigger, weirder thing going on here, which is that The Last Duel is a movie, and what we are watching is a woman being raped twice in virtually identical scenes that last several minutes. The scenes are doing narrative work, to be sure. But are there ethical issues to consider in asking an audience to witness a rape, twice, in the middle of a film that is otherwise presented as a swashbuckling epic? Clearly, the filmmakers intend for viewers to learn something by watching Marguerite’s tale. But what’s the point of telling it in this manner? And does it tie up the tale in a too-neat bow?
Having seen The Last Duel, I can’t get around those questions. I can’t even really answer them. One might argue that the contrast between the film’s convivial feasts and bloody fights and the starkly serious rape is meant to throw the latter into relief, but it simply doesn’t read as being that carefully considered. Certainly, the film is not actually interested in its titular duel — it’s so uninterested, it doesn’t point out that it was the last official duel in France, or why that would matter. I’m not sure the screenplay, as constructed, truly knows what it’s trying to say, or that its writers could convincingly defend its lengthy reconstruction of rape as merited by weighty, powerful reasoning. It’s at pains to make us agree that the rape was bad and that Marguerite was wronged, but that seems like pretty low-hanging fruit.
More troubling to me is that, in the fashion of many Hollywood period films, it also functions as a head-shaking, mournful look back at history. “Weren’t they so backward back then?” it asks. “They didn’t even know that rape can result in pregnancy! Women were legally just property!” But that framing gives viewers most in need of hearing the film’s central argument — that little has changed in social attitudes toward rape victims — an exit route. If you’re already inclined to think Me Too has gone too far, that women today probably overplay allegations of sexual assault, then The Last Duel gives an easy out. At least, it’s easy to think, we’re not like them anymore.
The movie The Last Duel most evokes is Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 crime film Rashomon. Rashomon is one of those movies that comes up in any basic film history course, so famous that the unreliability of witnesses in court testimony is referred to as the “Rashomon effect.” Rashomon tells the same story from different perspectives; it, too, is about a rape, and it also includes a duel. The links are obvious.
In Rashomon, a man is dead, and his wife has been raped. Three people testify, and we see the events from each of their perspectives — or we see what they each say happened, at least. First, the samurai who allegedly raped the woman and murdered her husband testifies, then the woman, then the murdered husband (through a medium). Each is lying in some way to protect themselves. We also hear from a fourth person, a woodcutter, who says he saw the events but never disclosed to the court that he knew the truth, thus throwing his own character into question.
The point of Rashomon is that eyewitness accounts, subjectivity, and basic human nature prevent any of us from ever knowing the full truth about what happened to someone else, and that humans have a hard time being honest about who we really are. (That everyone is shown to be lying may arguably make the echo of Rashomon’s structure in The Last Duel a bit ill-advised.) And, in fact, our inability to ever see the full picture is why Jager’s account of the many ways male historians, clerics, and scholars have tried to explain Marguerite’s story over centuries is so fascinating and infuriating. The real story, in some ways, is not only about the bitter triumph of a woman who was wronged but also about how punishing and even murdering a rapist does not erase his actions or their effects. (Marguerite bore a child who was likely Le Gris’s.)
The fact that Marguerite’s story didn’t end with the duel, or even with her peaceful later years, but rather with centuries of men arguing about whether she was ever really raped in the first place, would have made for a much more provocative film. As Jager explains in his Lapham’s article:
Historical scandals, much like the contemporary ones filling our tabloids, news sites, and now-ubiquitous Facebook feeds, are built on a widely shared sense of certainty about “what really happened” — a feeling that often belies the elusive truth. While some touched by scandal may resurrect their lives and reputations, others never will: what happened, or is said to have happened, may follow them even through the pages of history.
The long tail of a scandal such as this, a crime like this, and the vigorous assertions of those who are sure they know the truth is sobering and unsettling. (Ironically, The Last Duel’s version of events is necessarily just one more in the long line of speculations.) Marguerite and Carrouges received justice, sort of. But the fact we’re still talking about their tale today means the worst moment in one woman’s life has been relitigated long, long past her death. In that way, she’s a lot like many women today who are raped; even when they win their case, the whispers continue. History is told by the winners — except when it’s not.
The Last Duel opens in theaters on October 15.