Ridley Scott’s medieval #MeToo drama The Last Duel opens big as it sets the stage for a 1386 duel to the death between two armored combatants on horseback. Just as the first blow is about to be struck, the story cuts to 26 years earlier, when the two combatants, the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) fought side by side in the Hundred Years’ War. With that temporal shift, the movie’s point of view changes as well, as a title promises us “the truth according to Jean de Carrouges.” Instead of a Gladiator-style battle epic, it seems, we have entered a Rashomon-inflected psychological thriller where the same event will be reconstructed from three different points of view.
The first third of the movie, scripted by Damon, tells the story of the marriage of Jean de Carrouges to Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the beautiful and well-educated daughter of a knight who has fallen into disfavor for his disloyalty to the king. The bride is meant to come with a dowry that includes a valuable parcel of land, but thanks to the machinations of Le Gris’ friend and protector, the louche Count Pierre D’Alençon (Ben Affleck), the real estate in question winds up being taken away from him and given to Le Gris. The two men’s battle-forged friendship turns into a bitter enmity over the ensuing years as the dashing, urbane Le Gris gains favor in the eyes of King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), a sulky adolescent with a pronounced sadistic streak. Carrouges is Le Gris’ polar opposite in demeanor, a crude, glowering sort known for his courage in battle rather than his wit and charm in court.
When Carrouges returns from a short trip to be told by Marguerite that Le Gris has taken advantage of his absence to gain admittance to their castle and rape her, the story’s perspectival splintering comes into play. Carrouges vows to avenge Marguerite, less out of concern for his wife’s well-being than because of the hatred he bears toward his longtime rival. As the trial gets underway, the second chapter of the film begins: Now we see the same events from Le Gris’ point of view, with the character of Carrouges coming off not as a valorous warrior but as a petty, grudge-holding landowner. (This section of the film was written by Affleck, who was originally set to play Le Gris.) Even in Le Gris’ self-serving retelling, the encounter between him and his former friend’s wife is unequivocally shown as a rape. Though he presents himself to her on bended knee as a lovestruck courtier, when she orders him to leave, he has no compunction about taking her by force. It’s a tough scene to watch even in a movie full of brutal battle sequences, and in the third chapter, told from Marguerite’s point of view and scripted by the writer-director Nicole Holofcener, it will only get tougher.
When the words “the truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges” appear to mark off that last section, the word truth lingers longer on-screen than the rest of the title card, tipping off the audience that this version is the closest we will get to what actually happened, not just between rapist and victim but between husband and wife. The wedding night Carrouges’ account presented as tender and mutually satisfying becomes, in her retelling, a brusque and loveless deflowering. A later scene shows Carrouges berating and humiliating his wife for wearing a fashionably low-cut dress. The crime of rape, one legal adviser tells Le Gris, is “a property matter,” with the woman playing a role not significantly different from that stolen parcel of land that started the feud between the two men. Marguerite’s version of the tale emphasizes the grotesque misogyny at the heart of the legal system. As she is cross-examined on trial, she is repeatedly asked whether or not she enjoyed her own sexual assault, an act of rhetorical violence not unfamiliar to survivors in our own day and age.
The Last Duel is based on a real-life event, the last legally sanctioned duel to the death to be fought in France, as chronicled in a 2004 book by Eric Jager.* Though period details are minutely observed on the level of costume, setting, and production design, with the southwestern French region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine standing in for medieval Paris and Normandy, the dialogue is often pointedly modern, sometimes with what seems like a deliberately campy edge. As Affleck’s libertine lord invites his best bro Le Gris to join his orgy, he delivers the immortal line “Come in! Take off your pants!” Later, in a scene that unsubtly foreshadows the toxic machismo of the final duel, Damon’s Carrouges stops a runaway stallion from mating with his prize mare by beating the tumescent steed with a shovel.
Comer, best known as the psychopathic hitwoman Villanelle in TV’s Killing Eve, has a sly intelligence that suits her perfectly to the part of a woman whose freedom and pleasure are constrained by historical circumstances. She seems at times too modern in her self-presentation, but in a movie that deliberately positions itself as a #MeToo allegory, that anachronism is part of the point. Damon, his stolid face seamed by a deep battle scar, also makes sense as a thuggish medieval knight. If Affleck and Driver at times appear to be on loan from a different, dopier movie, possibly one involving Monty Python, they both have such a cape-swooshing, mustache-twirling good time that it’s hard to blame them for going all in on their characters’ villainy. And speaking of mustaches, it’s been a while since a movie has brought us such a wealth of bad historical hair, from Damon’s tiny-banged mullet to Affleck’s platinum-blond Corky St. Clair. Comer and Driver have better luck with their coiffures, serving us luxurious (and ahistorically clean) tresses straight off the cover of a bodice ripper.
Scott’s gift for staging violent historical spectacle, so memorably displayed in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, is on full display in the bone-crunching and genuinely suspenseful mounted battle that ends the movie. Having no familiarity with the historical event The Last Duel revisits, I had no idea which of the two men would prevail, but like Marguerite de Carrouges watching the duel from the stands with her legs in shackles, I was painfully aware that whoever emerged victorious, the damage had already been done.
Correction, Oct. 13, 2021: This article originally misstated that the book The Last Duel was from 2005. The paperback was published in 2005, but the book was first published in hardcover in 2004.