A $100 million epic that probably should have been made for significantly less considering the subject matter, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is a hard-edged Rashomon-like look at a rape in Medieval France and the ensuing legal duel, sanctioned by Charles VI, the last in France’s history. I’m going to be honest, I’m not surprised that it’s bombing horribly at the box office. This isn’t the sort of thing people want to buy popcorn to and go to the theaters to watch. It’s too heavy.
The film is broken up into three chapters, each telling the story up to a certain point from the perspective of the three main characters. The first is centered around Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a squire who led a hasty charge on an enemy line in battle that cost his lord, the Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), a key city. Alongside him in battle was Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) who helped Jean avoid death in battle and is also a squire under Pierre. The friendship between Jean and Jacques quickly devolves into a rivalry as Jacques gets closer to the Count, receiving more gifts for loyal service than Jean. Jean, meanwhile, meets the daughter of a pardoned traitor, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Jean negotiates with her father for her dowery, agreeing upon a particular plot of land that gets snatched from him when Jacques, unknowing the pending engagement of Jean and Marguerite, agrees to accept that land for the rents that Marguerite’s father owes Pierre, essentially (but not literally) stealing the land from Jean. Lawsuits are filed, egos are bruised, and Jean becomes increasingly bitter as he sees his lot in life lowered while Jacques seems to raise his own lots through no effort of his own.
Before going any further, I want to admire the film’s structure. The first third, Jean de Carrouges’ telling, is where we get the bulk of the world building, and it’s important stuff for the story. It’s not just about women being pawns in the games of powerful men. There’s a lot of detail about how the feudal system in France worked. How squires reported to Counts who reported to Kings, about how lawsuits worked, and how finances worked. Everyone is always short of cash, and the only way Jean de Carrouges can get out is to go to war from plunder and prisoners to sell at ransom. He goes to war in Scotland for just this, returning with nothing, and needing to immediately go to Paris to receive payment from the crown for his efforts. When he comes home, Marguerite tells him that Jacques Le Gris showed up when she was alone and raped her. Jean believes her, and he pursues a course of action that leads to the King of France endorsing the legal duel.
The second section is Jacques Le Gris’. Where Jean’s section showed a man perennially beaten down, Le Gris’ shows a man of education and loose morals climbing the ladder of power easily. Much of his section takes place in Pierre’s presence as he plays witty word games and joins Pierre in sex games with the pretty young women in Pierre’s court (outside of Pierre’s wife’s presence, of course). He’s also good with numbers and takes up Pierre’s accounts, agreeing to make sense of the books but also go to the different tenants on Pierre’s lands to pick up the missing rents. It’s here, in Le Gris’ section where we see that there are subtle but very interesting things happen. There’s one particular moment that is in all three sections where Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris attempt to reconcile at the celebration of another squire’s new child. In all three, a single line is uttered by different people about how no fight between squires should be allowed to continue for it is ruinous to all. In Jean’s he speaks it, in Jacques’ he speaks it, and in Marguerite’s the other squire speaks it off camera. This is like the memories of the three reflecting back on the events from the end of the movie, wondering how they all got there.
The most important aspect of this difference is in the rape itself. Jacques loves (lusts after?) Marguerite, but it’s mostly from afar. After a brief exchange at the celebration where both are revealed as book learned and witty, they spy each other in different places over the next few months. When Jacques sees Jean after Jean returns from Scotland on his way to Paris, Jacques decides that this brute of a man has left behind his beautiful, intelligent lady of a wife behind at home alone. He visits, enters her home through deception, and gets into her bedroom with her and no one else in the house. What follows is a recreation of an earlier scene from Pierre’s bedroom where Jacques had chased another lady around a table in a game that led to consensual sex. You can see the mirror, but at the same time it’s obvious that Marguerite doesn’t want to participate. It’s not playful, but it’s definitely not consensual. However, from Jacques’ point of view you can see how he might see it that way. As he explains to Pierre later, when the accusations are running around the country, Marguerite was a lady who just put up the normal objections, like the lady from the earlier scene.
The final third is Marguerite’s point of view, and it provides more interesting context around both men. Her first scene is of Jean angrily arguing with her father about the loss in dowery with her father promising him that Marguerite will be fertile. The celebration scene clarifies a moment where she was dancing with Jean but looking at Jacques with her dialogue explaining about fake smiles getting people places rather than anger. There are scenes with Jean’s mother, and the two really don’t like each other. There are scenes of her sex with Jean which obviously pains her (the common belief at the time that women require “the little death”, an orgasm, in order to conceive is mentioned by her doctor in reference to how she can’t conceive). And, most importantly, there is the rape, which is a good bit more horrible from her perspective. We can see that Jacques was thinking that he was playful, but he’s also far rougher with her and her protestations far more vocal. Also, Jean’s reaction to the news if far less understanding that Jean’s memory.
It all ends up with that titular duel, and Ridley Scott puts his trademarked look on the brutal fight that earns every bit of the R-rating. It is both satisfying in some ways and really empty in others, on purpose. Neither Jean nor Jacques are particularly good people. Even in their own tellings they’re not really admirable at all. Jean is a thin-skinned and impulsive brute who got himself laughed out of court, and Jacques is a cruel womanizer. When one side wins, it’s not the pure victory anyone really wants because motives, purposes, and intentions are all crossed and confused.
No, this really isn’t something that was going to make its money back at the box office.
I loved it, though. It’s a complex portrait of a brutal time filled with very good performances from everyone especially Jodie Comer as Marguerite and Ridley Scott’s wonderful visual sense of grandeur. I would never have greenlit this movie with a $100 million budget (and a script that is rumored to be at least an hour longer than the final product) as a producer, but I’m glad it’s here. It’s a hard film, but I think it’s ultimately very worthwhile.