Clang! Crunch! Swish! On leaving the cinema after seeing Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, the sounds of battle still ring in one’s mind. Over two-and-a-half hours Scott unleashes a series of ferocious battle scenes, and a final showdown between two armoured combatants that leaves nothing to the imagination.
As we remember from features such as Gladiator (2000), Scott knows how to film a contest in such a way that every blow registers almost viscerally on the audience. He’s also good on period detail – in this instance a historically convincing portrait of late 14th century France. It’s dirty, war-torn and violent. The French have just got through the latest bout of the plague, and are in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War with the English. Every view of the Parisian skyline shows the looming bulk of Nôtre-Dame presiding over a squalid, overgrown village.
It’s a sad reflection on popular viewing habits that this film has struggled in its first week at the US box office alongside the latest batch of formula movies. While the new James Bond and a handful of superhero flicks are packing ‘em in, this real life saga of the late middle ages has been slow to attract an audience, even though it must rank as one of Scott’s best.
The Last Duel is a long film, but hardly excessive. There’s enough brutality to satisfy those viewers who don’t feel sufficiently entertained without bloodshed, but also a complex, real-life narrative.
The same story is methodically retold three times from three different points of view, in a manner reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Like that masterpiece, Scott’s tale concerns a rape and its consequences. The outcome is a dramatic duel to the death between two former friends, that opens and closes the movie.
The two opponents, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), begin as companions in war. During a bloody battle with the English, Carrouges makes an intervention that saves Le Gris’s life. The bond that is forged will be subjected to the most severe of tests.
Carrouges is a nobleman, Le Gris a squire, but their stations in life are no reflection of their fortunes. Upon returning from battle, both men have to swear their allegiance to the Baron, Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). While Carrouges goes back to his family estate, Le Gris attaches himself to the Baron, becoming his indispensible right-hand man.
Damon and Driver work hard on establishing two very different personalities. Carrouges is a soldier, blunt and unimaginative, with a rigid code of honour and a reverence for tradition. Le Gris, who trained as a seminarian, is intellectually nimble, opportunistic, accustomed to living on his wits. In these chaotic times Carrouges is going broke, while Le Gris is becoming a wealthy man.
Carrouges thinks almost exclusively of his name and his property. When he sets out to marry again, after losing his wife and son to the plague, he chooses the daughter of a prosperous nobleman who has betrayed the King and needs to restore his good standing. Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is the antithesis of her husband, being sensitive where he is obtuse, literate and intellectual where he thinks only of action.
The lack of romance in Carrouges’s character is reflected in his love-making in which his only thought is the production of an heir. One scene suggests that he sees his wife as no more than the equivalent of a breeding mare. Le Gris, by contrast, is a libertine who participates in the Baron’s orgiastic parties, and has a seductive way with words.
Although the two men become estranged when the Baron awards land and titles to Le Gris that Carrouges believes to be rightfully his, they re-affirm their connection at a friend’s wedding. This is Le Gris’s first sight of Marguerite, and he is immediately smitten by her beauty and her charm.
His growing obsession with Marguerite leads Le Gris to ambush her when she is alone at home one day. He forces himself upon her, and warns her to say nothing. He is serenely confident in this manœuvre, as he knows that in cases of rape a woman was best advised to keep quiet if she didn’t wish to bring shame on herself and stir her husband’s anger. But Margeurite will not keep quiet. She tells Carrouges what happened, and he takes her case to the King. As there is no hope for a decision in court, he demands the verdict be decided by combat, leaving it to God to establish who has spoken the truth.
Even by 1387 this was considered an antiquated practice. No case had been decided by combat for 30 years, and very few would follow. The encounter between Carrouges and Le Gris would not be the “last” duel in France, but its barbarism had a discouraging effect on the practice.
The story proceeds like one of those cable TV dramas such The Staircase (2004) in which we think we know the story, but each retelling creates doubts and complications. Along the way we learn a great deal about the mindset of the Middle Ages and the personalities of the three main characters. As a wife was considered to be her husband’s possession, rape was largely viewed as a crime against property to be settled with the payment of a fine. The woman who brought charges would not only suffer the shame of an intimate cross-examination in court but be subject to dreadful penalities if she lost the case. In accusing Le Gris, Marguerite risks being burnt at the stake.
We begin by siding with Carrouges, who comes across as loyal and honourable, despite the mullet and the facial scar. Yet as we watch the accounts of Le Gris and Marguerite, we become conscious of Carrouges’s arrogance and pride, his ignorance and chauvinism. Le Gris, for his part, seems to feel that he acts in accordance with the dictates of courtly love. Like Lancelot with Guinevere, he sees himself as Marguerite’s suitor rather than her assailant.
Marguerite is also steeped in the medieval romances. She admits havings found Le Gris attractive, but never accepts that she consented to his actions. For Marguerite, “No” means “No”. Like rapists throughout the ages, Le Gris assures himself that it means “yes”. His self-confidence is invincible, bouyed up by the thought that he is an infinitely better match for Marguerite than her boorish husband. What we see with both men are two conflicting versions of chivalry that are hardly more than masks of self-interest.
The duel remained a famous event in French history and successive generations made their own interpretations. The thinkers of the Enlightenment saw Le Gris as the wronged party, but today it’s impossible not to take Marguerite’s side. For many viewers the film will conjure thoughts of the way Texas is currently winding back women’s rights with laws – and underlying assumptions – that seem medieval in inspiration. We can see that duels may have become unconscionable, but there are other aspects of the Middle Ages that never go away.
The Last Duel
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon & Nicole Holofcener, affer a book by Eric Jager
Starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Marton Csokas, Alex Lawther, Tallulah Haddon, Nathaniel Parker
USA/UK, rated MA 15+, 153 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 October, 2021