CONTENT WARNING: This review addresses themes of violence against women and sexual assault.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Last Duel – a film that virtue signals female empowerment and #MeToo solidarity while platforming and centring the male egos.
Ridley Scott’s 2021 adaptation is a gut-wrenching depiction of male fragility and ego, and their devastating consequences for women – even if it is a pot-boiler.
The Last Duel is an adaptation of American author Eric Jager’s 2004 true crime book of the same name, which recounts the last judicially recognised trial by combat fought in 14th century France. The film intended to centre the heroic and devastating story of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), who was raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a former friend and squire of her husband, now a powerful and cunning nobleman.
Split into three chapters and arranged into a Rashomon-type structure, where the same series of events is told from three different perspectives – it is a clever if at times cumbersome, insight into the three main characters’ psyches. This structure also helps portray the complexity of consent and how it is recklessly dealt with by the male characters while simultaneously silencing the female lead for the first two-thirds of the film. In doing this, however, The Last Duel’s production process reflects its message: male fragility trumps female autonomy.
The first part of the film follows Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who is portrayed as a stoic and rough but humble swordsman, intent on fighting for his land while protecting his wife and family. Jean’s unwavering convictions are contrasted by a more pathetic depiction of Le Gris, who essentially follows him around like a puppy, ready to appease and celebrate his actions at every turn. Jean’s apparent heroic reputation is considered to be the envy of Le Gris and the other male characters.
This portrayal is dismantled in the second part of the film, which is told from the perspective of Le Gris. Le Gris perceives Jean as a careless and bitter man, igniting petty feuds for the sake of saving his pride. He appears satisfied knowing he is the chosen squire to serve the erratic Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), a jarring representation of a modern-day ‘Chad’ in fruitless pursuit of some comedic relief. D’Alençon assists Jacques in climbing the local hierarchy through land acquisition in return for debt collection services. The two drown themselves in booze, women, and parties – true feudal fat cats. The men are depicted as womanisers, giving the audience a peek behind the curtain at how rapists behave before their crimes. But Scott fails to show these scenes as cautionary, precarious moments in a rapist’s descent into assault. Instead, women are portrayed as hypersexual and performative in what is ultimately an empty appeal to the male gaze.
While the first two chapters of the movie chew away well over an hour and a half, all that is depicted is two men chipping away at the ‘manhood’ of the other, while Marguerite stands meekly in the background as an accessory to their development.
The only part of the film that a woman wrote was the final chapter of the truth according to Marguerite – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the first two chapters of the film while leaving the telling of Marguerite’s story to Nicole Holofcener – perhaps an attempt not to dominate the telling of a woman’s heroic defiance of misogyny and rape.
The chapter title for Marguerite’s section appears as the others, stating ‘the truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges’. However, as the words fade away, ‘the truth’ is left behind to indicate that her version of the events is the only truth and that this fact is not up for debate. As this chapter follows the story previously told from the perspectives of Jean and Jacques, it is unwaveringly clear how self-absorbed the men are with their reputations, statuses, and interests, while treating Marguerite and the other female characters as a means to an end.
As the royal court later questions Marguerite about her allegation of rape, a line of men loom over her to ask probing and irrelevant questions to poke holes in her credibility. She is asked in front of a courtroom whether she found the rape pleasurable and is told that she may have dreamt the whole incident as something she wished to happen because of a passing comment she made about Le Gris’ appearance. Echoes of 14th century France, it would seem, continue to ripple in our current legal system.
Despite being continually told by her mother-in-law and close friends that she should never have told the truth, Marguerite speaks up rather than suffering in silence. However, the titular ‘Last Duel’ has higher stakes than just the lives of the duelers. If Le Gris defeats Carrouges, God is said to have declared Marguerite a liar, and she must be burnt at the stake – a final detraction from her autonomy.
Ultimately The Last Duel attempts to empower women while simultaneously epically failing the Bechdel test. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck – two men with close ties to Harvey Weinstein and their own problematic pasts – only afford Jodie Comer, the female lead, a third of the spotlight. Yet, despite a clumsy depiction of an important true story, the writing of Holofcener shines through and leaves the audience with the lasting impacts of a woman who, against all odds, spoke up, told her truth, and made the already arduous process of conviction slightly more bearable for those who would follow.