Rape; a word infrequently uttered in director Ridley Scott‘s The Last Duel. It is the heart of the film, as Lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a one-time friend of her husband Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), of rape. Aside from her initial accusation and a few off-hand remarks in court – largely in the context of “rape cannot lead to conception”, as asserted by men from the Catholic Church – the word is absent from the film. Scott tells it in three chapters, all framed as “the truth according to”, but the film minces no words in placing reality, a slow fade on “The Truth According to Marguerite” reveals the words “the truth” alone before fading to black entirely. For Jacques, uttering the word rape comes only in his defense, arguing that she wanted it aside from the “usual reluctance due to her being a lady.” Jean never really sees rape, just violation of property. Akin to Jacques taking a post that Jean had his eyes on or on a piece of land he assumed would be his as part of a dowry, it is a violation suffered by Jean. Rape is a word that carries with it great hurt and using it lightly is an obvious choice, both in amplifying its gravity when used and in framing the perspective of all those around Marguerite and how they view the events endured by her and many other women.
The script from Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck is the star. Framing it through these varied perspectives, the film has echoes of other Rashomon-type stories coursing through it while allowing these talented writers to play with words. A few scenes repeat each time. Forgiveness between Jacques and Jean. Their first day on the battlefield together. The day of the rape. The trial. Each finds the language changing ever so slightly. The men reframe it in their favor – or not, as Jacques tells the rape the same as Marguerite, a huge tell of his view on it – while she sees it for what it is, picking up on each word out-of-place that further cements her place as property in their view. Changing words and adjusting who says what ends up communicating more than words ever could about each character, an insightful and brilliant choice by the writing trio that carries with echoes of reality as well as biting social critique. Toxic masculinity is at center, of course, as well as the marginalization of women in a patriarchal society. What is expected occurs, from the Church to Jacques’ close friend Prince Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck) offering protection from the charge, as well as flippant disregard for what occurred. What is less expected also occurs with women turning on Marguerite for daring to tell the truth or even for, as they see it, lying because everyone knew she found Jacques attractive. It is a world with weapons bared, out to get women for being women and punishing them as “temptresses” who cause men to stray, rather than punishing the man who strayed. It is a toxic world breeding further toxicity, naturally only capable of dealing with justice with violence and “God’s will”.
Its modern day parallels are clear, though it tells a story that is tragically timeless. From patriarchal toxicity to marital rape and “nice guys” like Jacques who are overflowing with toxicity yet believe themselves to be a friend to women, The Last Duel is a cutting and brilliant adaptation of real events. As it highlights the cowardice of the men involved, Jean’s rampant insecurity and refusal to admit that Marguerite has been a great influence on him, and Jacques’ sexual assault escapades that further commodify women in his view, it centers the bravery of Marguerite. At risk of being burned alive, she holds firm. She places no faith in the masculine system, viewing it and the results of the climactic duel as irrelevant to her cause, just as they are. It is how men decide to deal with it, but Marguerite stands firm and ready. How she musters this courage is awe-inspiring, stored within the stoic yet impassioned eyes of Comer as she stares – with tears trying to force their way through – up at the Church representative trying her, defiant to his masculine attempts to weaken her. Though not empowered by society, she finds her strength and power from within, standing tall in a man’s world that refuses to understand women, degrades them at every turn (the obsession with “did you receive pleasure” is skin-crawling), and objectifies them, refusing to back down to a challenge and fighting back in her own way, using truth, words, and confidence as her own weapon. Comer rises above the rest of the talented cast through this inner power, a captivating and incredibly moving presence.
The excellent writing that emphasizes each word is matched by Ridley Scott’s typically great direction. He is not just in great form, but delivers one of his best films with action scenes on par – or even eclipsing – those from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Carrying with it the weight of The Duellists’ feud and a keen eye – courtesy of DP Dariusz Wolski – that lands on the beautiful terrain, backlit castles, and sprawling land covered in snow, rain, and blood, the film’s action scenes match the intensity of its drama. Of course, pouring over the details of the case, hearing how words change and scenes adjust depending on perspective, and the intense persecution of Marguerite from all, stands as the emotional core of the film. However, as the film basks in the masculine world around her, it delivers the same edge-of-your-seat peril. The early battle scenes are great, laced with tight close-ups, quick jabs, and plenty of strong blood effects that leave one recoiling with nausea and so glued in they cannot look away. Yet, in line with the film’s focus, it is the duel that is the emotional and thrilling crescendo. The combatants hardly matter with the film knowingly cutting between them and the stoic, chained, and practically restrained (her dress is tight and covers basically her entire body) Marguerite. Each blow the men land on one another and their horses, each drop of blood shed, and each stab carries with it the potential of either damning or “liberating” Marguerite. Her nerves are clear, though reserved. Jean’s own reservations about his wife’s claim and Jacques’ refusal to admit wrongdoing serve a strong underpinning for the scene, also layered with their personal strife to make this a particularly involving and spellbinding sequence. One may forget to breathe, it proves so involving, a fitting climax that delivers potent fight choreography to go along with its thrilling presentation.
The strong production details are matched by tremendous performances from all involved. Comer, of course, is the star with an incredible resolve and power, running contrary to all sexist misconception that surrounds her character. Matt Damon’s rugged and beleaguered appearance covers up the ignorant manchild he plays, with his performance capturing why this man is the laughing stock of every room he leaves. Damon’s ability to convey both his perceived nobility and his recognized futility adds depth, while also playing on his masculine insecurity over his apparent infertility and inability to satisfy a woman. Ben Affleck’s flamboyant performances as Prince Pierre, the toxic endorser of all bad behavior and powered by pride is an unexpected joy, a great use of Affleck’s persona – he can hardly contain his joy when Damon bows before him – and range. So often he gets typecast, but here he is able to unleash and really revel in that leeway. Alex Lawther pops up as King Charles VI, the impudent boy king who is so overjoyed by watching men kill one another or a woman possibly burn that he keeps smiling and laughing with glee. Lawther is impressive, matched by the incredible Serena Kennedy as Queen Isabeau. Though silent, Kennedy’s expression as Marguerite defies expectations and stands firm to her claim communicates magnitudes, an impressive and subtle touch. One can see in Kennedy’s face the knowing glance of a woman similarly objectified – a sin even Marguerite commits, gossiping about the Queen’s allegedly pierced nipples – and commodified, offering both sympathy and silent support. Her concern in the duel running counter to the flippant disregard in the King’s face, too, stands out with Kennedy making the most of her screen time, never needing a line to make her presence felt.
While Ridley Scott’s work speaks for itself, it is fair to say that the veteran director had been in a bit of slump. In The Last Duel, he returns to his roots, examining a long-lasting feud between two men that culminates in a duel a la The Duellists. Except, here, the story of the two men takes a backseat. It is the woman at the center, the oft-ignored figure of historical films and the one objectified by the men of The Last Duel’s world at every turn. Adapting a true story with considerable modern parallels, Scott and his writing team of Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, are able to examine the toxic masculinity and flaws of the patriarchy that culminate in such sexual violence. It examines the words, phrases, and microaggressions that signal how a man views women that so often gets brushed over by male perspectives. As a result, it provides a nuanced and calculated view, while blending it with tremendous action sequences and impressive performances from Jodie Comer, Damon, Affleck, and Adam Driver. The Last Duel is not only a return to form for Ridley Scott, but one of the very best films he has ever directed.