Before the #MeToo Movement there was Marguerite de Carrouges, a 14th century woman who dared to have a voice and speak up against the man who raped her. Her voice, the representative voice for all women during this repulsive time in history where women were nothing more than property, rings loud and clear in the Rashomon-Style film “The Last Duel.” Based on a true story, “The Last Duel” is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck.
It’s Paris, 1386. The story begins at the end as two men, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Driver) prepare to joust to the death, the divine judge in innocence and guilt. As the two collide, we flash back in time to 1370 to see the events through Jean’s eyes which lead to this bitter ending. The battles fought during the Hundred Years’ War are brutal but the respect, camaraderie, and even friendship between Carrouges and Le Gris are clearly portrayed. As the years go by, the battles continue, but the two men find themselves in different stations in life. Le Gris becomes the right hand man to King Charles VI’s brother , Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) while Carrouges meets the woman whose enticing dowery sways him to remarry. Carrouges’ inflexible mentality of righting all wrongs creates animosity and enemies in high places, but never does he waver. But one fateful day, arriving home after a battle, he finds his wife distraught. Attributing it to her inability to get along with her harshly judgmental live-in mother-in-law (Harriet Walter), he soon finds out that his “friend” has betrayed him in the most vile of ways.
The film restarts back in 1370 to give us Le Gris’ version of the events, or his “truth.” Le Gris’ perspective is oftentimes reversed from Carrouges but only in minor ways as he remembers himself to deliver the eloquent or inspiring words during battle. We also gain an understanding of both Le Gris and d’Alençon’s relationship and their treatment of woman as sexual objects or property. These two powerful men reveal the political manipulation that occurs behind closed doors, but it isn’t until we see Le Gris’ version of his first and last interaction with Marguerite that we begin to more completely understand this narcissistic man.
The third and final chapter is seen through Marguerite’s eyes, “the truth according to Marguerite.” As the final three words fade leaving only “the truth” on the screen, we learn what happened that fateful afternoon. We also learn who this strong, smart, and fiercely independent woman is as we are once again back to the year 1370. Her recounting of the relationship between Carrouges and she is slightly different, but those nuances create a completely different tone. And for a second time, we recount the initial meeting between Le Gris and Marguerite and the horrific intrusion where she is raped. Finding the strength and courage to tell her husband and convince him that not only is she telling the truth, she accuses Le Gris of this crime only to put herself and her husband’s life on the line. According to the archaic rules of what would become the last duel to take place in France, God would protect the truth-teller. If Le Gris lives and Carrouges dies, Marguerite, chained to a chair high above in a wooden platform with kindling beneath her, would be burned alive. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
“The Last Duel,” written in three segments by three different writers, allows us to better see and understand the depth of the story. The subtle differences between Carrouges’ version, written by Damon, and that of Le Gris, written by Affleck, gives us a wonderfully well-rounded tale. But it is Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) who writes the third perspective for Marguerite that is the most powerful element of the story.
This could have easily been a convoluted mess given the slight variations to each of the character’s perspectives, but thanks to director Ridley Scott and the stunning skill set of the actors, the film is a period masterpiece that tells a riveting and raw tale of what is unfortunately a familiar story even today. And while the battles are sometimes gruesome, the savagery is short-lived as Scott readily realizes that the heart of the story is Marguerite and what happened amidst the brutality of the time period.
Damon, who never disappoints us in anything he does, rises to this challenge of this role with the gritty determination of his character. His dextrous performance as Carrouges, a flawed man who possesses integrity and strength, augments not only the story but the rest of the cast.
Driver has an equally powerful performance as a man who doesn’t understand his own wrong-doing. His character’s complicated backstory completes Le Gris as we watch this man cling to his version of the truth. Finding and using those subtleties within this particular character is an extraordinary feat, but rivaling his performance is the power of Comer as Marguerite. Her tenacity to depict Marguerite in the 14th century and even today, is as inspiring as it is heart-wrenching. Her performance, like her two co-stars, in each of the three versions requires fine-tuned attention to detail to portray this woman seen from two different men’s perspectives and then her own. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that will resonate particularly with women who have ever experienced sexual abuse.
Affleck and Lawther — the mentally disturbed King Charles VI — have fun with their roles which gives the viewer a few light-hearted moments. On the other side of the spectrum, we also see a breathtaking performance from Walter in a pivotal scene as she discusses rape and women in that time period. (Have things changed in 600 years?) Director Scott’s attention to detail elicits standout performances from his entire cast as well as recreating 14th century France. “The Last Duel,” an emotionally raw and powerful story that is unfortunately still a relevant one, is simply flawless.