A Matter of Perspective
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot, including the ending.
It’s funny that The Last Duel should be a film about bravery – that’s both that of medieval women and the traditionally recognised form of masculinity writ large – men charging into battle and experiencing what Adam Driver’s character calls, with some justification, “the worst of this world.” Funny, because on the issue the story explores, namely truth, it dare not trust its audience. Sir Ridley ran away.
Perhaps no studio would have funded a movie in the post-me too era without a cast iron, mail shirt adorned assurance that the fair lady’s account of events would be flagged as the most trustworthy of those presented. But it’s nevertheless dispiriting that the on screen caption that sets up this chapter of the story, the third of three perspectives, highlights the word “truth” and lingers on it, so the dumb dumbs in the auditorium, the jury-at-large, are suitably directed to find for the prosecution.
The case before us is one of rape in France’s medieval court. Did Jacques Le Gris violate the wife of one-time battle buddy, later rival, Jean de Carrouges, as Marguerite claimed, or is there more to it? We better be sure, because the stakes are very high indeed. By making the accusation in women-friendly 14th century France, Jodie Comer’s demure maiden risks being killed by her husband – yes, her husband, should he believe the allegation to be vexatious. If she’s believed – the ugly, ancient cliché that women lie looming large – the matter is turned over to, er, God. God, being a man, likes to set up a proxy battle of ideas – one that involves the wronged husband, for the lady is but his property, fighting the alleged rapist to the death. If the husband, representing both himself and his wife’s integrity, loses, God is judged to have found for the accused. In that event, as a deterrent to other women getting strange ideas about punishing men for their unchecked libidinous desires, the woman who made the allegation is flogged then burned alive. And you thought it was bad being a woman in France today!
If we imagine the movie without its intrusive piece of direction from the judge/filmmaker, Ridley Scott is content to tease out the ambiguities in the situation. Central to this is the understanding that in every scenario Comer’s Marguerite is chattel; her political and social influence entirely dependent on her husband’s patronage. She’s traded away, complete with any add-ons like land and cash, ahead of her wedding. Her worth is contingent on her ability to provide children – specifically male heirs. And her value as a woman overall is bound up with archaic ideas that refuse to die, even in our so-called enlightened century – ideas around virtue, chastity and beauty.
Scott sets this up very nicely and adds to the mix two psychologically engaging male leads. Comer’s spouse, Jean de Carrouges, as played by Matt Damon, is a brooding, bulky, broadsword wielding lump of unreconstructed masculinity; a man bred to put lineage, honour and position above all else. In Damon’s hands he may not sound very French, but we certainly understand the man’s hierarchy of priorities and where his wife fits in. Events seen through his eyes are simple enough – he’s lost land and position to Driver’s proto-Byronic Le Gris, his considers himself a dutiful and loving husband, though he doesn’t recall much of his sexual encounters with his spouse, and although shaken by Marguerite’s accusation, he has no doubt that Le Gris, who’s covetously eyed his betrothed – a dark stallion eager to mount his pure-bred filly, is guilty. He’s taken everything else that belongs to Carrouges, why not his wife too?
Driver’s Le Gris is a more sophisticated, quieter beast. A man of learning who becomes a formidable fighter and invaluable to the King’s cousin Pierre. His looks and his intellect make him attractive to all those around court. Unlike Damon’s dutiful lunk, Driver’s a womaniser. Nothing gets him off like what, in an uncomfortable medieval forerunner to “no means yes”, he’ll later refer to as “traditional protestations” – chaste ladies putting up a little virtue signalling resistance before giving themselves to the dominant buck. Such scenes set up the alleged rape to come. Le Gris, who sees in Marguerite a kindred spirit – a woman of letters, underserved by her indelicate, brutish spouse – looks into her wide-eyes and imagines another woman who’d welcome his attention. Sure, she says no – loudly and clearly, when Driver throws her onto a bed and forcibly penetrates her, but in his version of the grisly scene, there’s no violence, just playful sexual dynamics. The lady protests but not too much.
It’s then we move to Marguerite’s account and the aforementioned alert from the filmmakers that hers is the version to be taken most seriously. Without that caption, there’d be plenty to convince us. Shading like Carrouges’ put down and humiliation of Le Gris in front of the court; the faint suggestion that Le Gris’s visit to Marguerite is the savage manifestation of wounded pride. Marguerite’s recollection of the rape scene leaves us in no doubt as to its violence. And yet, how much more interesting the film might have been had the ambiguities teased beforehand been allowed to linger to the very end.
A story like this is packed with intrigue. Comer’s character is apparently unaware of the risk to her own life until the trial has advanced to the stage where any retraction is politically impossible. That she’s implicitly pregnant by Le Gris opens up another can of worms. Carrouges’ lack of success in impregnating his wife puts Marguerite in a difficult position. Medieval prejudices around conception being linked to orgasm aside, once she intuits she is pregnant by Le Gris, the shame and punishment that would follow from adultery prominent in her mind, she is incentivised – the movie suggests – to get rid of him. Are Marguerite’s tears those of someone traumatised by sexual assault, or tears of guilt in a God fearing culture where the threat of damnation for adulterers is literal and tangibly felt? Did Marguerite, fearful of any affair being discovered, indulge in a game of high-risk, ruthless pragmatism? Comer’s poker face and Driver’s impassioned protestation of innocence in his final moments, suggests it’s possible.
Perhaps the movie’s reluctance to let us decide for ourselves matters less than the vivid and bloody picture it paints of a society that forces women into such contortions. Comer, perfect as the ingénue who becomes a rose trapped between two thorns – that’s church and state, as well as two walking hardons – personifies the struggle women endured for centuries and still do to varying degrees – of having a liminal relationship to patriarchal power. The movie makes the case, very effectively, that for women this was and is a dance – a negotiation that is imposed by a system that’s both hypocritical and lacking in empathy. We leave Scott’s film certain of that, if nothing else.