To be quite honest, a movie with the title The Last Duel doesn’t conjure up images of 14th Century British history. No, in my mind, Tom Cruise pretending to educate Japanese Samurai on how to be more “samurai” comes to mind, with its own barrage of the White savior coming to help a lesser race on how it should act and think and ultimately, live (and if that isn’t American Imperialism at its worst…). However, once I realized this was Ridley Scott’s latest incursion into historical epics complete with sword fights and massive battle sequences, I was sold. If there is anyone who can turn any historical or quasi-historical event and spin it into gold, it’s Scott. Heck–I’ll even watch a bad Scott movie and he’s made a few of them in his six decades as a movie director.
I have a sneaking sensation that Scott has, at one time or another, watched Akira Kurosawa’s movies — notably, Yojimbo, and I’ll get into that in a bit, You see, The Last Duel touches on an obscure piece of history that unless the average person might not know of. In 1386, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenged his squire and former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel to the death following accusations that Le Gris had raped his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the last of a series of insults that could be resolved in no other way. WE later learn, should Le Gris win the duel, then Marguerite will be whipped naked in front of the entire public and burned alive. This is, obviously, not a happy affair.,
Scott then pulls us back — way back — to when Carouges and Le Gris were on more friendly terms. Even then, the movie depicts Carrouges as inherently noble by association and birth (albeit if it is on a lower level). On the other hand, Le Gris seemingly through no fault of his own rises up the ranks to be Count Pierre d’Alençon’s, right-hand man. It is this unlikely series of events that posits both men in increasingly adversarial positions. When Carrouges marries Marguerite, he intends to link himself to a higher position. However, this also gets taken away from him once d’Alençon grants this portion of land. To make matters worse, Le Gris also become a form of a manager to a fort that had been in the Carrouges’ family for generations. The last straw, what pushes Carrouges over the edge, is the claim that Marguerite makes to him that Le Gris raped her one morning while she was alone in their home as he was away on business.
This is a lot to unpack, but Scott makes it easy to understand with the movie’s deft writing and the clear exposition of the situation. Because Scott has divided The Last Duel into three chapters, we do not get to see the rape in the movie’s first third. Marguerite, the reason the duel even happens, remains a somewhat decorative figure in the background. We mainly get Carrouges’ account of the indignities he has been subjected to, and by all means, we do believe him.
Once we get into the second and third chapters, the movie starts to become something of a puzzle. Le Gris tells his own story and places himself as a lovable rogue who through no fault of his own found himself earning the favors of Philippe. When he gets introduced to Marguerite in a diplomatic meeting after he and Carrouges have fallen out of friendship, their kiss becomes a little more than just a kiss, and we see the faintest expression draw itself upon Marguerite’s face. This is a stark contradiction from the movie’s previous segment where she and Le Gris met, yes, but nothing of the nature that might indicate anything more than a polite kiss transpired.
Scott has the difficult task of filming Marguerite’s rape and because this is a movie that gives us three different accounts, we will have two very different accounts of what exactly happened. Le Gris’ account paints a Marguerite who wasn’t herself putting too much of a fight but simply allowed the incident to happen. Marguerite’s version, on the other hand, comes last, and when she begins to tell her story from start to finish, we finally get to see a woman not only diminished because of the times she lived in, but one who gets to stand up, use her voice, even if the very act may condemn her to a horrible death. She doesn’t simply stand by and watch Le Gris and Carrouges become adversaries; she is a strong advisor who knows how to use diplomacy to her advantage. It is telling how, in a dance Carrouges that follows her meeting to Le Gris, he may see a woman flirting with him; she is warning her husband about him the entire time.
And then the rape scene arrives, and it is truly horrifying. Her revelation, instead of instilling a protective nature in Carrouges, inflames his bruised masculinity even more. In Carrouges’ mind, his enemy has taken everything from him–even his wife, the ultimate humiliation. He even goes as far as to blame Marguerite herself, an action that hits closer to home even today. Marguerite, however, will not be silenced, and while the entire confession/accusation becomes a scandal, while her personal life gets exposed down to the last, most intimate details, she remains headstrong and defiant.
The duel of the title is the movie’s highlight. Here is where Scott lets all the anger of his hurt female, and the passive women that pepper the entire movie–Count Philippe’s wife, Marguerite’s sister and mother-in-law, the King’s own wife–echo that. This fight is because one woman stood up when countless others have not. This is no attempt to create a movie conscious of its need to tell a movie where the woman is at the center and thus appease feminists in general. The latter scenes slant heavily towards giving women a voice, no other character voices the acceptance of how women had to allow and withstand being trampled upon by the men of their time than Harriet Walker’s Nicole de Buchard. An evil mother-in-law at the start, she comes out of that shell and reveals to Marguerite how she is one of many women who have been suffered abuse in silence because they simply do not carry any power when power lies in the hands of men. If anything, this is the movie’s central message: to give us a mirror into the precarious position women of all classes had (which sus see how awful the time, and to see how little things have changed despite the march of time and feminism.