Finally released after being delayed by almost a year, Ridley Scott’s historical drama The Last Duel, adapted from Eric Jager’s 2004 non-fiction book of the same name, is based on the true story of the last officially recognised judicial duel in France fought in 1386 between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. This film is also Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s first screenwriting collaboration since their award-winning debut Good Will Hunting in 1997.
Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are two squires from Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck)’s court, who quickly become rivals after Carrouges marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a nobleman who betrayed d’Alençon to protect his wealth. Carrougues sues d’Alençon for giving a piece of land that was supposed to be part of Marguerite’s dowry to Le Gris for helping him collect debts, especially from Thibouville himself, which results in Pierre giving Le Gris the captaincy of his fort, which Carrouges was supposed to inherit from his father. On top of all that, Le Gris is also courting Marguerite, and the rivalry ultimately results in a lawsuit brought to the king after Le Gris rapes Marguerite while Carrouges is away at war in Scotland, only to be declared
innocent by Pierre, whom he has made his best friend.
The movie is divided into three parts, each telling the same story from the point of view of a different character: first Jean de Carrouges, then Jacques Le Gris, and finally Marguerite de Carrouges, whose version is presented as the actual truth. Written by Nicole Holofcener, this last part, and ultimately the movie itself challenges the historical narrative of two men fighting over a woman being raped by exploring the point of view of the woman in question herself, during a time period when women were pretty much their husband’s property.
The duel between Carrouges and Le Gris has always been a fascinating and contested event among historians and The Last Duel is one of many contemporary texts that seek to reframe important and famous historical events through the point of view of the women involved, whose perspective is very often ignored by historians, even though their roles in history were often incredibly important and undervalued. The Last Duel is especially relevant in a post #MeToo world, by reexamining a historical event that infamously took a woman’s rape and made it all about men.
But there is more to this film than its unsubtle feminist message. The movie also bets a lot on its comedic elements and its satire of nobility, the Church and the norms of the time. Ben Affleck in particular is unexpectedly hilarious in Le Gris’s part and looks like he had a lot of fun playing this rich asshole
annoyed by formality who cares more about partying and sleeping around than anything else, and Scott seems to know when to place comedic moments to have the best effect.
But the problem is when moments that should be serious become unintentionally funny, and the dialogue is mostly to blame for that. The script tries to make the dialogue “accurate” to the period by having characters speak like in a Shakespeare play, but this dialogue is in fact not accurate at all, since actual 14th century English would be incomprehensible today, and the result instead feels like a parody à la Monty Python that fails to convey the emotion it tries to, and the film would have been better off doing away
with it and simply making the characters speak as though they would today.
And the bad accents of American actors pretending to be French don’t help either.
At the end of the day, many factors contributed to the movie’s box office disappointment, between the 150 minute run time, being targeted at an older audience who haven’t really started going back to theatres yet and having to compete with the new James Bond. The movie itself is not without flaws either, and I doubt it will get the Oscar nominations that it seems to aspire to as a typical Oscar bait. But it’s not a bad movie by any means either, and the four lead performances are all top-notch. Jodie Comer in particular proves how talented she is, with a performance that is a mile away in tone yet just as excellent as her recent role in Free Guy, and gives a masterful portrayal of a woman whose suffering is ignored by everyone, including other women, and used as nothing more than an excuse for men to fight each other.
The film also does a good job of highlighting how unfairly women were treated at that time, with the punishment for a false rape accusation being much harsher than that for rape itself, especially when guilt or innocence is determined by competition and not by actual evidence, as well as the hilariously bad female anatomy taught by the Church. It also shows how little some things have changed since then, and even seem to be regressing in the wake of Texas’s recent abortion laws.
Overall not a movie for everyone, but a good film for those who like historical drama, feminist fiction, and have two and a half hours to spare.
The Last Duel is in cinemas now.