The Last Duel has no right to be as good as it is.
On paper, this project always sounded like a recipe for disaster. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon reuniting to write their first script since Good Will Hunting about the last 14th-century trial by combat in France, enlisting Nicole Holofcener as a co-writer ostensibly because the crime on trial was rape? Starring both Affleck and Damon, two of the most recognizably modern faces in movies today, in some truly terrible 14th-century wigs? Also starring Adam Driver and Jodie Comer? Directed by octogenarian Ridley Scott, who, yes, directed both Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven but also Robin Hood and 1492: Conquest of Paradise? The disparate ingredients are too weird to fuse together into something good, let alone tasteful.
Yet, miraculously, here we are. The Last Duel is one of my favorite movies of the year.
Though not immediately apparent, its success lies in its three-part structure, with each part taking the viewer through the events leading up to the duel from three different perspectives. First is Jean de Carrouges (Damon), husband of Marguerite and former friend of Le Gris; second, Jacques Le Gris (Driver), the rapist; and finally, Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), the survivor. It is not a criticism to say that the first act drags and sets you up to believe that the remaining two-thirds of the movie will be the repetitive disaster one has good reason to assume it will be — but that is on purpose. Jean’s point of view is boring but necessary because it’s the default point of view in stories like this, historical or otherwise — the wronged man, heroically centering himself in his wife’s life-altering trauma. The writers make it so easy for us to fall into this trap and to root for him in spite of it.
Jean’s self-aggrandizing narrative is comfortable because it doesn’t challenge anything. Only with the shift in perspective to Le Gris does the viewer truly begin to comprehend how dangerous that kind of comfort is. Clever editing from Claire Simpson, combined with subtle yet sinister changes in acting and, once again, that brilliant script, reveal in “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris” that Jean is only a hero in his own mind. To everyone else, and to Le Gris especially, he is an illiterate boor, a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield but horribly incompetent at politics, the kind of man who makes everything worse for himself. In a world that rewards no one but men in power and the friends with whom they choose to share that power, Jean is an easy mark. Through his friendship with Count Pierre de Alençon (a delightfully reprehensible Ben Affleck), Le Gris steals property and titles from Carrouges. He feels guilty about it until he doesn’t. Then he steals more.
In one of Driver’s best and most unsettling performances, he shows that Le Gris does not feel remotely guilty for raping Marguerite. A combination of revisionist memory and selective perception absolves him of any sin. And more than that, the very culture in which he lives provides him the ultimate obfuscation. It is disturbingly easy for him to frame his actions through the language of courtly romance. It is even easier for every man around him to assure him that he is the true victim of this scandalous accusation. Rape wasn’t a crime at this time, after all. At best, it was a property crime against the husband, hardly worth all the fuss.
Le Gris commits the worst crime against another human being someone can perpetrate and, until his dying breath, he believes himself to be in the right, that he deserves what he has stolen from Carrouges (Jean, that is — Marguerite is incidental). Fourteenth-century feudal society is not a world that has been designed to label him a criminal. It was designed to do precisely the opposite.
Seven centuries later, and so little has changed. A few laws, maybe. Public opinion, more or less. But the third act, Marguerite de Carrouges’s Truth, is particularly haunting because her experience remains a universal one for survivors of sexual assault. One could argue that her humiliation in testifying before King Charles VI (Alex Lawther, perfectly cast as a mad little weasel) and his entire court about whether or not she orgasms when her husband has sex with her, among other infuriating indignities, is anachronistic. One would only need to compare the real 14th-century transcripts the movie adapts from Erik Jager’s academic history of the same name to the 2015 trial transcripts of convicted rapist Brock Turner to see that this is not the case.
Placing Marguerite’s perspective last is a double-edged sword; it packs the most emotional wallop but also remains curiously cold. Perhaps it’s the grim acceptance everyone around Marguerite tries to force on her, perhaps it’s a symptom of the lifelong conditioning of her behavior that whatever drives her to see Le Gris punished at the risk of her own life cannot precisely be called anger. At best, it’s rage transposed into righteousness. Comer only gives us glimpses into this bottomless well, even when the focus is fully on her, but that’s hardly a knock. A woman in Marguerite’s place had to keep so much inside — arguably everything, every part of her, in order to survive a society that discounted her as a human being before she accused another man of raping her. It is no wonder that she keeps the true depths of her feelings even from herself.
The Last Duel is such a rich film, as visually sumptuous as it is intellectually formidable. It’s a rewarding watch but not an easy one. By the end of the movie, my jaw was sore from clenching my teeth throughout the entirety of its two-and-a-half hour runtime. I genuinely did not believe that Damon, Affleck and Scott had something like this in them. It’s a pleasant surprise not to be disappointed for once.