Sir Ridley’s Broken Lance: ‘The Last Duel’ is a Dud in Clunking Armour
Content Warning: discussion of fictional and historical sexual assault.
Only a few medieval women had the means to raise their voices in protest against the idea that women even enjoyed being taken by force. Christine de Pisan, in her book The City of Ladies (1405), wrote that women “take absolutely no pleasure in being raped. Indeed, rape is the greatest possible sorrow for them.”
— Eric Jager
Forgive me, Sir Ridley: I had to watch your latest feature at home on Disney+ because there was nary a screening to be found in West London. But I promise you that my phone was turned off. Despite the hubris and bad press I was cautiously optimistic, so I gave The Last Duel a fighting chance and my full attention. And now I’m going to be hard on it.
Working with screenwriters Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, Scott has adapted this story from scholar Eric Jager’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France. It’s one of the most entertaining and gripping works of popular history that I’ve ever read, and can be consumed over the course of a lazy weekend. Save yourself the interminable slog of watching the movie and check out the book. Read it on your phone if you really want to stick it to Scott; I got it for a few quid off the Kindle Store.
Aside from an elaborate structural intervention and a concomitant shift in thematic emphasis, Scott and his team hew pretty closely to the facts as laid out by Jager. In late fourteenth century France two squires brought their dispute to the court of King Charles VI. Edward de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris were vassals of Pierre d’Alençon, a Norman Count who delighted in making his subjects vie for favour. The older and less charming Carrouges had been eclipsed by Le Gris’s rising star, and his descent into disapprobation was riven with humiliations. The bitterest of these was the loss of a captaincy held by his family for generations, but this was neither the last nor the worst of his rival’s mischief.
Returning to his castle from some obscure and pointless war, Carrouges found his wife Marguerite in extremis. During his absence, on a day when she’d been left alone at home by her mother-in-law and the servants, she was visited by Le Gris and his kinsman Adam Louvelle. They raped her. It fell to her husband to seek revenge — mainly for the sake of his own honour and standing. His quest for indemnity was sure to stall if left to the authority of Count Pierre, so Carrouges pursued the matter all the way up to the Crown and the Parlement of Paris. The final adjudication would be trial by combat. The lists would furnish the ultimate courtroom, and God would render the verdict. The infraction was either the crime of crimes or false witness; the miscreant would die at his foe’s hand. No quarter would be given, and none would be sought.
This is the basic narrative material that the filmmakers were given to work with, and their first, most fundamental, and most catastrophic miscalculation was to create ambiguity where none exists in the historical record. After a prologue, straight out of Jager, of the preparations for the titular bout, the movie is divided into three parts: The Truth According to Edward de Carrouges (Matt Damon); The Truth According to Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver); The Truth According to the Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The main result of this is that we have to sit through a lot of tedious courtly intrigue and not one but two very distressing dramatizations of the central crime.
Sporting one of the most offensive haircuts seen in a movie since Javier Bardem’s mop top in No Country for Old Men, Matt Damon gives an almost heroically unlikeable performance as Carrouges, and it’s an indication of the movie’s structural redundancies that the character comes across as a social disaster even in his own account. Bizarrely, his most barnstorming speeches of recrimination are withheld until the Le Gris section, as if the movie’s second chapter existed as a receptacle for narrative overspill. (There’s a fan edit to be carried out here: lose the switchback structure and trim the whole thing down to a tight two hours. However, that would require the movie’s having fans.) But for better and worse it’s so much more than that: here we have both the movie’s most successful romp and its rotten core.
Sadly, if this movie is a triptych then the rapist is given the pride of the central panel, not only descriptively but evaluatively. Scott has focused on morally dubious characters in the past — Denzel Washington in American Gangster and Cameron Diaz in The Counselor dominate their respective movies — but never to such deleterious effect. If Tim Curry’s Prince of Darkness is the most enjoyable thing in Legend, it doesn’t come with such moral cost to the viewer. That’s because Curry buried himself under tons of prosthetics to play a cartoon of evil, whereas we’re insufficiently distanced from the ugly truths that Driver embodies.
In his hands Le Gris is an entitled brat and a political animal with delusions of culture and sensitivity. Scott might not be exactly be peddling sympathy for the devil here, but he does give his monster the catchiest tunes. Ben Affleck’s preening Count is given his best material as the pair indulge in high-spirted low cunning. Fans of Games of Thrones at its most vulgar will delight in seeing these perverts cavort with a clutch of naked wenches. Such are the meagre pleasures to be had. The audience is somewhat helpless with the fact that Driver is having the most fun of the three principals.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Keeping faith with his protagonists’ circumscribed perspectives, in the first chapter Scott gives us only Marguerite’s report of her violation by Le Gris. In the second telling, in the assailant’s version of events, the path to Marguerite’s chamber is strewn with hints and invitations, the felony sanctioned by fair speechless messages. In order for Le Gris to convince himself that the lady desires him the screenwriters contrive an anachronistic conversation about their taste in reading that’s at least as embarrassing as Good Will Hunting’s superficial displays of erudition. This touch isn’t entirely beside the point — Jager points out that much of the literature of the time celebrated knights who raped lowborn maidens — but the modern-style book club chatter still jars. Regardless, Driver is exceptional in portraying the reality-distorting obsession and self-love of a man who thinks he’s doing his victim a favour.
However, it’s Comer’s performance that is key. With the subtlest of variations she conveys whatever tonalities the film’s structural calisthenics require of her. To be blunt — and to avoid replicating the movie’s undue and lingering prurience — she succeeds in suggesting that Marguerite almost enjoys her despoliation. Almost. The sequence is distressing and lowering to behold. Narratively and thematically, Scott snookers himself: the only way out of the mind of the rapist is with a cold and bracing blast of reality, so he’s committed himself to taking us through the harrowing scene once again. In this third telling Driver is terrifying and Comer gives it her all: she screams, she begs, she despairs. The scene is a miniature masterpiece of acting, blocking, and restrained mise-en-scene. And I never want to sit through it ever again. Why would anyone?
Jager dedicates just a few pages to the assault, and his description (derived from contemporary chronicles and court documents) is bracing and discomfiting without knocking his entire book off-kilter. (Note as well that the movie downplays the part played by Louvelle for the sake of its plot.) There follows more than half the tale; medieval society was highly litigious, and the road to trial by combat is almost absurdly circuitous. Anyone who enjoyed his rendering of it can tell you that Scott et all have alighted upon and amplified the least fascinating and edifying element of it. This adaptation is not only a misconceived and maladroit attempt at allyship; it’s also a missed opportunity.
Like I said: read the book and picture what could have been. Among much else, Scott fails to live up to his title. Why was this the last duel? Because the French Crown increasingly bristled at the suggestion that there existed a judicial authority above its own. Why was this arbitration granted? Because the King was out of town and the Parlement preferred to kick the issue into touch. There’s a tangled and mordant black comedy to be hewn from this material — one requiring a much lighter touch than Scott’s.
If you desperately have to watch a sad story of a fair lady more sinned against than sinning in a hard world of cold castles and beastly men, may I recommend Blanche? As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s a medieval movie for grownups. I don’t mean that in the sense that the reputation of its director, Walerian Borowczyk, might lead you to expect. This isn’t the art-house pornography of The Beast (a classic bit of Sirpa Lane smut) or Emmanuelle 5 but rather a fairy tale of pitiless cruelty leavened by its director’s deep compassion for his heroine, played by his wife Ligia Branice. More so than Scott’s misguided caper, this haunting and engrossing 1972 feature feels both inapproachably antique and painfully contemporary.
Putting these two movies side-by-side puts me in mind of a line of Roger Ebert’s: “No good movie is depressing. All bad movies are depressing.” The Last Duel is a depressing movie and also — some good sword fights notwithstanding — a deeply boring one.