“My father told me my life would be blessed with good fortune. I’m married. I was a good wife. And then I was judged and shammed by my country.”
I recall when first seeing the movie trailer for Ridley Scott‘s return to the period piece in his now long and storied career. In a genre he is well-versed in1, which clicked ye olde excitement meter. July 2021, about a year and a half into the pandemic that had swept the world. Having someone like the renowned British director head into the Middle Ages for a “based on a true story”, promised something immersive.
Hopefully, to make many forget about the disease and misery in our current lives, the result of which hitherto unknown, but hold that thought.
It is an old military axiom, “The enemy gets a vote.” So, the pandemic took all the excitement, and oxygen, out of the room with regard to seeing The Last Duel that Fall. COVID and its variants cautioned many from venturing into enclosed spaces like stores, restaurants, and yes, movie theaters. Rising cases, hospitalizations, and sadly deaths had lots of moviegoers holding off for better days. Me included. No surprise the movie’s release faltered at the box office2 upon release.
Placated missing seeing the movie in theaters with reading the book the film was based on, which brought up an idea. Thought to bring back my former Duo Post partner Rachel to look at the historical basis for the book and film for her thoughts on a subject that needed the perspective. Though our old book-film series closed down years ago, this title seemed fitting to resurrect, at least temporarily, our former teaming. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Jean de Carrouges is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Jacques Le Gris is a squire who has fought alongside and befriended him. Contrary to Carrouges, Le Gris’ intelligence and personality has brought him favor in his benefactor’s court, Count Pierre d’Alençon, while the other wains. As their rivalry ebbs, to Carrouges’ horror, his beautiful wife, Marguerite de Thibouville, accuses Le Gris of rape.
Carrouges at first seeks justice through the same court, but Le Gris is the Count’s favorite, so it goes nowhere. So it is brought before the King of France to decide. With Marguerite stepping forward to accuse her attacker of the vicious assault, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy, it’s left for the Heavens to decide. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the truth in the matter, as well as the fate of all three, in God’s hands.
“Deny, deny, deny. Everywhere, always, at all times and to all men. You did not commit adultery. It never happened, there is no proof. It will always be your word against that of Jean de Carrouges.”
To his credit, Ridley Scott successfully recycled aspects from his previous endeavors (The Duelists, Kingdom of Heaven, and even Thelma and Louise), with an homage to one of the great works of Akira Kurosawa, to breathe new life into this actual events tale. The chronicle of the last official judicial duel-to-the-death in 1386 France, juxtaposed on the big screen against our own culture coming to terms with its treatment of women by powerful men3.
The Last Duel‘s principle intrigue is coming to bloody terms via conflicting Rashomon-like versions of the events through the eyes of the two antagonists and the wife whose violation was the cause of the duel. Moreover, the film’s and the audience’s immediate focus is the medieval melodrama that is at its core. The physical combat is merely the byproduct. Yet, the film is notable for its authentic recreation of the stark violence, but more importantly the laws and values, of that era4.
“Right? There is no right. There is only the power of men.”
Menace is everywhere, from the adversaries across the field prepared to slit throats of bystanders, to the jealousies among royals and in-laws (even if they share a common tongue), or with those who share vows and a marital bed. The Dark Ages may have passed, but its pervasively dank, dimly-lit gothic castles and cold snowy exteriors, display its true nature. Nothing here is warm or wistful, nor bestowing the comfort of someone having your back, other than your enemy.
All befitting the subject matter at hand.
Interestingly, the three discrete narratives the audience has to navigate — the chapter of events from each of its main cast — were not presented as such in the source material. And it’s meant to introduce a measure of doubt to the proceedings5. Then again, that would be the intent of any French avocat of the time, or today’s American defense attorneys, for that matter. By all means, that’s the whole point of the filmmakers.
Through this we see the growing rift between Carrouges and Le Gris leading up to the rape, as well as the former’s jealousy and protectiveness of his wife. Which we soon learn he treats more his property than the love of his life, or even an equal partner in their marriage. And all it conversed against the latter’s good looks6, political savvy, and a way (at least in his mind) with women. To say nothing of his eventual fascination with his rival’s appealing better half.
Though, the filmmakers do make clear both Le Gris and Carrouges, like many men of today, confuse pride with that of honor.
In no way, did such things transfer to the peasantry suffering under French aristocracy of the time.
All of that wouldn’t be much different than what studios have dropped on movie audiences over the decades, or found at a Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament near you. No, the key to Eric Jager’s historical tome, and adapted in the Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon screenplay, was Marguerite’s general hardship bequeathed by her being a woman in 14th century France. Or rather… her dutiful role as a noble woman of privilege in feudal society7.
Marguerite: “You knew what would happen to me should you lose this duel. You knew and you didn’t tell me.”
Jean de Carrouges: “God will not punish those who tell the truth.”
Marguerite: “My fate and our child’s fate will be written, not by God’s will, but by which old man will tire first.”
Historical dramas traditionally are serious themed products, and in another way, meant to draw comparisons with contemporary culture in the eyes of its audience, which Ridley undoubtedly meant to do here.
I realize period pieces aren’t to everyone’s taste, and the film’s portrayal of the gentry class in period Normandy, France, as presented in this costume action-drama, is slow to unwind. On the other hand, Game of Thrones was nothing but barbarous (w)hack-a-mole without its players courtly, back-stabbing stratagem. Keeping that ingrained ultimately did contribute to solid character development for that series and here for the few who saw The Last Duel first-run.
“In the name of God, and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent of the crime!”
The film’s screenwriters8 and director did take some liberties from the historical record, likely adding further dislike of the film by some. Yet, they provided Marguerite more of a story and a bit more autonomy. Portraying her as an equal character but also expounding on the criticism rape victims habitually receive, then and now. Were the changes valid? To the drive story and motivation, I’d say yes as it gave Marguerite far more agency than she otherwise would have expected.
As for the cast, I think it held up, but I’m an American9 so take that with a grain of salt. The casting director sprinkled in a few who’ve worked with Sir Ridley in the past, too: Matt Damon (The Martian), Adam Driver (House of Gucci), Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven), Zeljko Ivanek (Black Hawk Down, Hannibal), among others. And Affleck again caught almost as much grief for his portrayal of Count Pierre d’Alençon as his Batman, which is unfortunate as I enjoyed him in both roles.
But, in the end, the film rises with Jodi Comer‘s performance as Marguerite; as fans of her work in Killing Eve can attest.
All said and done, I believe The Last Duel will eventually rise in statue as some of the director’s other works that didn’t catch fire upon release. The story, cast, art direction, and action choreography is too good to languish on the sidelines. The duel itself is one of the great action set pieces of Scott’s10. While the film played with ambiguity to drive its representation of history, as the author came around to near the end of his book, its heart lay with Marguerite’s account — it’s even hinted in the graphics11.
In the final analysis, Ridley Scott returned to form and entertained this fan by delivering a film that centered on our present by commenting and immersing us in the past.
For differing perspectives from colleagues who saw this first-run, I recommend the following:
Ruth’s Flixchatter review found here
Richard Kirkham’s blog review found here
- The Duellists (1977), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Robin Hood (2010). ↩
- “Sir Ridley Scott blamed cell-phone addicted millennials for letting the film flop. He stated, “What we’ve got today are the audiences who were brought up on these f*cking cell phones. The millennial who do not ever want to be taught anything unless you told it on the cell phone.”” ~ IMDB ↩
- The sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, among others. ↩
- And how they aren’t that much different in this day and age with regard to current society’s treatment of women. ↩
- “In the centuries since Le Gris’s death, the case has become an important cultural legend in France, and the guilt or innocence of its participants has been a source of great debate among historians and jurists.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- No doubt, the filmmakers made sure the prominent facial scar Matt Damon wore contrasted Adam Driver’s unmarred good looks. ↩
- She also carries the additional burden of being the daughter of the disgraced noble, Robert de Thibouville, a Norman lord who had twice sided against the French king in territorial conflicts. ↩
- “Matt Damon said that he and Ben Affleck brought on Nicole Holofcener to help them write the female perspectives of the screenplay.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Some reviews have utter disdain for the American actors portraying the Frenchmen in the film; especially the rivals who battled for their honor and lives that day. ↩
- Compare the film’s final duel sequence to the Battle of Calahorra found in Anthony Mann’s 1961 epic, El Cid, to see how good it really is. ↩
- Besides her profile image embossed on the opposing swords banner, note the “…truth according to…” titles when each chapter is introduced; all three will fade to black, but only Marguerite’s melts away to leave “The truth…” onscreen before it leaves. ↩