REVIEW: The Last Duel [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 152 minutes
    Release Date: October 15th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: 20th Century Studios
    Director(s): Ridley Scott
    Writer(s): Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon / Eric Jager (book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France)

God will spare those who tell the truth.

The tale at the center of Eric Jager‘s book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France is a compelling one that supposedly continues to inspire debate among historians today about who was telling the truth. While unsurprising considering there weren’t any witnesses of the crime that was said to have been committed, it explains how little has changed from 1386 where the patriarchal underpinnings of our world are concerned. Debate means that some people believe Marguerite de Carrouges was lying when she told her husband Jean that his once friend, current rival Jacques Le Gris forced his way into their home and raped her. They somehow believe this despite the potential repercussions of the accusation itself: Marguerite being burned at the stake.

Suffice it to say, I was worried upon sitting down to Ridley Scott‘s The Last Duel as adapted by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. Knowing it was split into three chapters—Jean’s (Damon) “truth”, Jacques’ (Adam Driver) “truth”, and Marguerite’s (Jodie Comer) “truth”—made me believe the film was going to give all three principal players a chance to tell their version of events and, in so doing, provide the men equal footing to the victim. Remember that we’re talking 1386 France where wives were considered property that had to be accompanied by a dowry to be taken off their fathers’ hands. The crime isn’t therefore that Jacques raped Marguerite, but that Jacques “stole” something Jean “owned.” Allowing these men any voice at all proves suspect.

Thankfully, Scott and company don’t do so in a way that devalues Marguerite’s truth. In fact, they highlight the word “truth” when it comes to her chapter in a way that portrays to the audience that hers is definitive. While this development is a good one as far as allowing the film to be a depiction of the very real struggle women face when it comes to reporting rape (and simply living in a society governed by laws written by men specially to benefit men), it also begs the question: why split it into chapters at all? If the first two chapters are delivering the exact same reality as Marguerite beyond certain tweaks allowing the men embellished notions of their sexual prowess, what is the process actually adding?

I’d argue nothing since we could have received the men’s filtered interpretations (Jean thinking he’s an empathetic creature who cares about his wife’s wellbeing more than his own pride and Jacques thinking he’s an Adonis every woman wants to bed regardless of their acknowledged rejections) while Marguerite is explaining why they’re mistaken. Separating everything teases pertinent revelations to the crime itself, yet the only thing that we receive from the deflection is humor—something that probably shouldn’t have any place in this story anyway. Rather than see the insidiousness of Jacques fantasizing that Marguerite is flirting with him from across a room, we’re asked to laugh when viewing the scene from her perspective and hearing her tell Jean, “It’s fun disarming someone you dislike by smiling at them.”

It’s merely a delay of the inevitable with the potential of undermining her truth. It’s as though the film thinks we should be having that aforementioned debate despite already choosing to remove all avenues that would allow us to question Marguerite’s accusation. Chapter One shows that Jean stood by his wife and Chapter Two confirms that Jacques raped her. Yes, the former softens Jean’s desire to do so for his own benefit rather than hers. Yes, the latter lets Jacques pretend it was a consensual secret made admissible because his love demanded it. But neither of those things should get someone thinking, “Well, that means Marguerite was lying.” They only prove the danger she’s been in since the moment she was born as a bought and sold object.

And that danger is why Chapter Three is so good. The first two thirds of the film are effectively drawn with expert production value and solid performances, but they pale in comparison because they possess incomplete rather than alternative information. The camera finally shows us Marguerite’s fear and futility. She’s married off by a father compensating for how he sullied his own name. She’s married to a much older man simply because he demands an heir after his first wife and son died from the plague. She’s assaulted by a man who takes her public show of tolerance as her neighbor and superior to be an invitation for sexual advances. These are all events that must be told from her perspective because she’s always the one without power.

Is it written better because the subject matter is stronger from her perspective? Or is it because there’s no inherent need to “play” with a very real nightmare to facilitate a plot structure that became obsolete the moment it was decided to not let Jean and Jacques pretend the crime didn’t happen? It’s probably a little bit of both. Either way, letting Comer carry things should have been the choice from the beginning because her character is the most complex, captivating, and necessary to the whole. Damon and Driver are both great, but they are coming from a time where men didn’t have to show remorse. Their cruelty isn’t hiding anything. They are simply cruel. The nuance comes from how Comer interacts with them rather than from themselves.

As a result, we’re also allowed a lot more insight into the supporting cast when Marguerite is front and center, standing up for all women as well as herself. Suddenly the other women looking on are less background dressing and more sounding board through expressions that expose just how aware they are of what occurs behind closed doors in this vicious world of domineering men. It also helps give context to the insatiable appetites of men in power like Pierre d’Alençon (a scene chewing Affleck who chose it over playing Jacques as originally intended and written) and young King Charles VI (a blood-hungry, mess-loving Alex Lawther). There are monsters everywhere Marguerite turns—including those she trusts. She will no longer allow herself to simply be their silent prey.

There’s drama and suspense in Marguerite’s interrogation thanks to her finally being told what happens if Jean loses the duel to the death he has triggered against Jacques. And there’s even more during the fight itself due to it being a brutal, knock-down battle of attrition that always remains about the men fighting rather than the woman’s fate lying in the balance. Will Jean have the advantage considering he’s fought in every war since coming of age with the scars to prove it? Or will Jacques succeed because he’s younger and less broken down? Both have the indignation necessary to send them through a wall to save their pride and forget their apparent love for the woman in chains above them. That ultimately says more than everything else.

[1] Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges in 20th Century Studios’ THE LAST DUEL. Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris in 20th Century Studios’ THE LAST DUEL. Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d’Alençon in 20th Century Studios’ THE LAST DUEL. Photo by Jessica Forde. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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