The myth of noble knights, regal ladies, and majestic, sprawling kingdoms is one that is often romanticized, both in fantasy and in stories based in reality. So far this year, we’ve already had one film, David Lowery’s “The Green Knight”— an adaptation of an Arthurian legend— challenge the notion of the courageous knight on a quest. Now, with “The Last Duel,” a period film based on the book by Eric Jager which in turn is based on true events, director Ridley Scott further dismantles the idea of the medieval knight’s nobility with a story centered around a rape, and the woman who fights for her truth to be told.
Screenwriters Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck (the pair’s first collaboration as co-writers since their 1997 film “Good Will Hunting” put them on the map) divide their “Rashomon” style screenplay into three chapters, each told from a different character’s perspective and set over the course of several years beginning in the late 1370s. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are friends and squires serving in France, with Carrouges in particular being renowned for his prowess on the battlefield. Le Gris becomes an advisor and close confidant to Carrouges’ overlord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), and is tasked with collecting funds owed to Pierre. Carrouges, with his need for both money and an heir, marries the disgraced but wealthy Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer). These characters circle each other in a series of land disputes and jockeying for accolades, events that ultimately lead Le Gris to Marguerite’s door while she is home alone.
Each of the film’s three chapters recounts the same general series of events, but there isn’t so much overlap that it feel repetitive. And in those exact scenes that we see over and over again, it’s fascinating to see the subtle yet noticeable differences in each characters’ telling. A kiss between acquaintances is an innocent peck first, but something perhaps more passionate later. In Carrouges and Le Gris’ versions, their interactions with Marguerite are chivalrous, and she appears adoring to them. But in her story, they are both frequently aggressive, verbally as well as physically, and she is less pliant to their will.
We watch these different versions of events unfold, but by the time we reach the third and final chapter, Marguerite’s story, Scott leaves no room for ambiguity. As the final words of the phrase “The truth according to Marguerite” fade away on the title card, we are left with “the truth.” As entertaining and engrossing as the first two parts of the film are, it’s Marguerite’s story that is the most powerful, reframing the narrative that came before. We witness the misogyny that she faces day to day, the micro-aggressions from her husband, from her father, from her doctor, from her mother-in-law and even her female friends that paint a larger picture of how for centuries society has been structured to control women. We see how she thrives on her own while her husband is away fighting his petty battles, managing their estate and putting the accounts that Carrouges neglected back in order. And we see how her decision to speak out about what happened to her and demand justice from Le Gris alienates her from nearly everyone she knows. The most concerning scenes in the film are of course the ones depicting the rape, which we watch twice from different perspectives. It certainly isn’t easy to watch, but it fortunately is handled carefully and not staged in a gratuitous manner.
The script for “The Last Duel” often does the bare minimum as far as its obvious “believe women” messaging goes, but it’s still frequently powerful. And it’s hard not to draw parallels with this story and contemporary events, not only with the #MeToo movement but more recently the abortion bans passed in Texas, placing a tighter chokehold on women’s rights regardless of their circumstances. Comer’s performance, a portrait of determination and resiliency above all else, hammers it all home.
The title “The Last Duel” refers to the joust between Carrouges and Le Gris that bookends the film (so-called because it was the last officially recognized duel in France). But this war between former friends is not for the honor of a lady, as much as they may pretend it is. It is a selfish act of shallow bravado. Carrouges does not care about Marguerite’s well-being; he does not care that she had this horrible violation committed against her. He just cannot stand the fact that another man laid hands on his wife. And Le Gris doesn’t really love Marguerite, despite his earlier claims. If the male members of the cast set out to create the most horrid group of men imaginable, then they succeeded in spades. The masculine ideal glimpsed on the surface— good in battle, charming with women— is quickly stripped away over the course of the film’s runtime, leaving us with characters who are driven by insecurities laid bare in the pursuit of that ideal. This is most seen in Damon’s Carrouges, a man who cares about his name and status above all else (including having good hair or committing to an accent). And with Driver’s Le Gris, we see a man who throughout the film is freely given almost everything he could want: power, status, women. So when he decides he wants Marguerite, he assumes what he believes is his right to take her. Driver’s performance is chilling just in how he portrays Le Gris’ justification of his actions. Like the many men who don’t know how to take “no” for an answer, he has no concept that he did anything wrong. In his mind, his rendezvous with Marguerite was consensual. He does not deny that it took place, but he does deny that he raped her. He blusters through his defense of himself without hesitation.
Affleck’s performance deserves special mention here as well. He is primarily present in the second chapter, only popping up sporadically throughout the rest of the film, but his supporting turn adds another layer to the misogynistic environment the story is set in. In scenes in which the men are talking, Scott frequently turns the camera to the women in the background, and this is especially true of Pierre’s obviously suffering wife, who shoots her philandering husband with daggers in her eyes when supposedly no one is watching. Affleck’s hair and accent afflictions are similar to Damon’s, but he commits to his role with hammy enthusiasm. From his first appearance in the film, during which the squires kneel before him to pledge fealty and he impatiently commands Carrouges to move closer, it’s clear that he will be both the bane of Carrouges’ existence through the film and it will be an absolute delight to revel in his despicable nature.
Scott’s film relies less on battles and more on human interaction, but when we do get some action, they are brutal spectacles of sight and sound. This is no truer that during the epic joust that crowns the film. The noble sport quickly devolves into no-holds-barred hand-to-hand combat, and Scott keeps the action largely focused on the two men with minimal outside reaction. It still all circles back to Marguerite, however, and “The Last Duel” rightly ends not with the gloating winner’s victory lap or the inhuman treatment of the loser, but with her. “Fun” feels like a strange word to use in reference to a movie with this subject matter, but “The Last Duel” truly is a blast to watch, and handles its story much more deftly than I expected. It’s thought-provoking in a way that many big studio movies today simply are not. This is Ridley Scott’s best film in years, a throwback to the star-studded adventure movie with a modern sensibility, and one of the best movies of 2021 thus far.
“The Last Duel” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 153 minutes. Rated R.