It begins on December 29, 1386, in a Paris battle arena, not far from Notre-Dame Cathedral. In the “changing rooms” the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) wrestle with their armor, which is difficult to put on and is at least as burdensome as it is protective. You are facing the last court-ordered duel in France, which Ridley Scott describes in his new film The Last Duel told.
The former friends and comrades in the war had initially clashed because Le Gris had received a piece of land from Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), which had been part of the dowry of Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The betrayed filed a complaint, which only brought him a court ban from the count. Reluctantly, he reconciled with Le Gris after a while. But a few campaigns later, it is the time of the Hundred Years War, Carrouges came back from Scotland as the newly beaten “Sir Jean” and learned from Marguerite that she had been raped by Le Gris.
According to the state of emancipation around 1380, rape is not considered a crime against a woman, but a violation of her husband’s property rights. And when it comes to property issues, Carrouges is once again ready to fight. Le Gris denies. The king himself allows the required duel. The pregnant Marguerite is the last to find out what consequences this could have for her: If her husband loses, it is a judgment of God. She would be convicted of the lie and would be burned alive.
What sounds like a medieval horror tale actually happened that way. However, at the end of the 14th century, the practice of duels was considered a controversial obsolete model. Accordingly, Ridley Scott and his team of authors Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener create the multi-layered portrait of a torn patriarchy in which changing rituals and values lead to contradictions and irreconcilable conflicts.
Gossip as a social medium
The question of honor is answered not only with gaining and defending power and titles, but also with something like emotional intelligence. When, for example, the slightly dumb illiterate Carrouges (whom Matt Damon plays almost heartbreakingly) orders his wife to seal the peace treaty between him and Le Gris with a kiss, then it looks above all uneducated. Immediately afterwards, the rather reserved Marguerite and the lithe macho Le Gris are talking about their favorite books and quoting from current German literature as if they were at a dinner party: slightly affected – and in German.
Parallels to the present can also be found in Carrouges’ tactic of not immediately reporting the rape of Marguerite officially. He feels that the chances of being heard are too small. Instead, he relies on the power of a social medium: he asks his followers to gossip. Le Gris’ deed is to be spread word-of-mouth in order to increase the pressure on the count responsible. This medieval forerunner of a MeToo campaign is growing. Such and hardly to be counted further details, which above all casually tell male weaknesses, insecurities and abysses, should go to the account of Nicole Holofcener. The author and director has been one of the most exciting chroniclers of the New York middle class and higher society since the early 1990s. Her tone mixes admirably with the hearty slaughterhouse full of screaming, bleeding men and flipping horses, which Ridley Scott once again stages as opulent as it is unadorned.
The structure of the film was no less effective. Three chapters trace the history of the duel from different perspectives. It starts with Carrouges, who sees himself as a righteous patriot, great general and caring husband. Le Gris feels superior to Jean in all respects and is intentionally inflamed by Marguerite’s formal kiss. Marguerite finally unmasks both men as symptoms of toxic masculinity, with often tragicomic, but also catastrophic consequences. Which of the three points of view comes closest to the truth, whether Le Gris was rightly accused, is still controversial in France to this day.
The film ends, that is not too much to reveal, with the viewer’s perspective, in a double sense. Carrouges and Le Gris work each other with lances, axes and daggers in front of an audience. If the situation seems decided, “Kill him!” Shouts from the stands. When the tide turns, the loser is cheered. People like to be on the winners’ side, that would be the not really surprising final moral of the film, if it weren’t for the very last appearance, with a mysterious, ambiguous look towards the camera. It would counteract the enlightenment purpose of the film if there weren’t a small, decisive difference in the titles of the individual chapters beforehand. Again, it’s a detail that makes it clear whose side of the story is The Last Duel stands.
The Last Duel Ridley Scott USA / Great Britain 2021, 152 minutes