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“The Last Duel”–A Fight to the End

The Last Duel (2021) is based on Eric Jager’s nonfiction account of the late 14th-century French trial in which an alleged rape of the wife of one nobleman is committed by another of lesser rank.  The Last Duel is part medieval saga and part female revenge drama.

Set during the decade after the Black Death, and the calamitous Hundred Years’ War, social disturbances have ravaged France with debt and a reduced population to support the feckless aristocracy.  Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is one such landowning but illiterate nobleman deeply in debt.  Forced to become a mercenary to maintain his father’s castle, Carrouges fights bravely for his king alongside his friend Jacque Le Gris (Adam Driver) and is knighted after saving the battle and Le Gris’s life.  Widowed and grief-stricken for the loss of his young son, Carrouges seeks out an exceptionally educated and beautiful noblewoman Marguerite (Jodie Comer) who has coveted estates and land. 

Soon Le Gris, tasked with debt collecting by the powerful Count Pierre (Ben Affleck with blond hair and beard), seizes Marguerite’s dowry landholdings for himself and becomes Count Pierre’s second-in-command.  A heinous, self-congratulatory opportunist, Le Gris becomes Carrouges’s worst enemy, after stealing what is rightfully Carrouges’s.

On a dark and lonely night in January 1386– according to Lady Marguerite– Le Gris travels to her family’s chateau and rapes her. With her husband in Paris to collect payment for fighting the king’s battles and her mother-in-law (fiercely portrayed by Harriet Walter) and servants away, there is no one to confirm Marguerite’s rape.   

The story then pivots to three accounts of Marguerite’s rape, structured into three parts, with each character giving his or her account Rashomon-like.  The two male perspectives are given first, leaving the viewer uneasy about Marguerite’s report of the crime, which is presented last. 

Carrouges, after hearing of Marguerite’s brutal rape, presents the case to the king, demanding the right to a duel, or trial by combat. Believing that God’s will prevails,   the guilty party will die by the hand of the sword.   If Carrouges dies, he is presumed guilty.  His wife is then assumed to have perjured herself and  will be burned alive.

The Last Duel is watchable for a number of reasons:  1) Rape was not a crime against the woman but a violation of her husband’s property rights, for the wife was legally considered chattel.  2)  The nobleman’s court was a source of patronage, not justice and the Catholic Church had even less integrity for priests were familiar with and guilty of rape themselves.  3) Women friends and family members were often unsympathetic with the woman who raised charges of rape and sometimes came forth to support the rapist.  These characters are a proxy for every woman who has ever told another woman to shut up and take it.

On December 29, 1386 the last duel is scheduled with grotesque, brutal scenes of a battle with spears and knives.  Carrouges’s mother and his wife have everything to lose too.

The 2 hour-33 minute- story structure of The Last Duel, based on a script written by Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener,  suffers from weak editing.  The Rashomon-like story of an assault from the attacker’s viewpoint, the husband’s, and then the victim’s should have been spell-binding.  Memory can be a weapon—misogyny, society’s toxicity towards women’s rights, class prejudice all infuse memory consciously or unconsciously.  Yet the repetitive flashbacks for each character’s recollection—particularly of the rape—is excessive and detracts from the narrative.  Everyone is the hero of their own story, regardless of self-denial and delusion.

There are serious pacing issues that just beg the viewer to fast-forward. Producer Ridley Scott throws too much on the screen — bacchanalian orgies,  bloating and gloating men, galloping horses, slashing thighs and throats in splatter-gore violence— which clutter up the story and destroys needed momentum.  The third act—Lady Marguerite’s account—is exhilarating in its drama and arguments at trial and saves this film from being a hackneyed trope on knighthood and ladies-in-waiting.

Jodie Comer’s performance is simply phenomenal!  This is her movie and The Last Duel is worth watching because of her. 

Availability:  HBOMax streaming

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