Review | “The Last Duel” tries to find a woman’s justice in medieval France

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Image via 20th Century Studios

Culture editor Diana Velasquez argues that even if “The Last Duel” succeeds in telling a forgotten woman’s story, the movie highlights problematic depictions of sexual assault in Hollywood.

By Diana Velasquez, Culture Editor

Critically acclaimed director Ridley Scott is no stranger to the making of an epic. The Hollywood giant has iconic films such as “Alien,” “Gladiator” and “The Martian” to hold up. Each wades deeply into their historical or futuristic contexts, with big bombastic battles and great themes of love, war and personal sacrifice. 

But “The Last Duel,” which plays at a fraction of these movies’ scale, was no doubt his greatest challenge yet. It tells the story of a medieval-era rape in France, and the duel that followed it when the woman’s side of the story has been lost to history. 

The movie is based on the book of the same name, chronicling the last legally sanctioned duel in France between knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris. Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite, with the intent of dueling and killing him to achieve justice. If he lost, his life was forfeit and Marguerite would be burned at the stake according to the law. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to account for the men’s stories — what Carrouges said about the matter and what Le Gris said to counter him. But Marguerite’s thoughts weren’t recorded. So when it came to making the movie, the writers knew this had to be corrected. 

Except for the first few minutes and the last 20 minutes of the film, “The Last Duel” is told in three parts, each labeled as “the truth according to.” And so the movie is really replayed three times over, each from the perspective of a different character. 

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who star as Count Pierre d’Alençon and Pierre de Carrouges, also wrote the first two stories following Carrouges and Le Gris (Adam Driver). And they smartly had the foresight to leave Marguerite’s (Jodie Comer) story to a female screenwriter, Nicole Holofcener.  

Holofcener said in an interview with The New York Times that Marguerite saw her assault in “black and white” when the world saw it in shades of gray. She was raped. She wanted justice. But justice for rape victims is never so simple, not in the law and not for themselves. 

Nicole de Buchard (Harriet Walker), Marguerite’s mother-in-law, tells Marguerite point-blank to get over her assault because she isn’t the only woman to have been raped. There is a line in the film that hits on this very well — “Rape is not a crime against a woman, it is a crime against her male guardian.”

So often, sexual assault against women is determined by the effect it has on their male companions. It’s a trend that calls back to antiquity, with tales such as the rape of Lucretia — one of the founding stories of Rome. These are stories told by men, not by the women affected. 

For Marguerite, it seemed that she wanted to rectify this pattern as best as she could. Though she faced public disgrace, alienation from the French court and a slow, painful death if her husband lost his duel, she continued on.

It is certainly some kind of exquisite justice to have Comer at the helm of this story when, for centuries, it had been led by the men who no doubt caused her a great deal of pain. She is phenomenal in the role, and I expect to hear many whisperings when award season comes around.

But it’s important to acknowledge that as great as the movie’s script, directing, production and acting are — it is a story about sexual violence. And because of the way that the script is formatted, the assault in question is shown to the audience twice.

This shouldn’t be a surprise — it’s a story about rape. It’s not a far stretch to assume that it would be shown on-screen. It’s warned in the movie’s rating if anyone needed to double-check. 

That doesn’t mean it’s not very hard to watch.

Research shows that rape scenes, even if forewarned with the proper trigger warnings, don’t always prevent the psychological impact that comes from watching them. These impacts can include numbing to such violence, and in some cases, there are men who become sexually aroused by watching it.

In truth, it’s very hard to justify the need for a rape scene in any piece of media. And it’s becoming more and more common in our shows. While critics praised “Game of Thrones” for most of its airing, the show gained plenty of flack for its brutal depictions of rape. 

The question that the writers for “The Last Duel” would no doubt face is — how do you write rape out of a movie that centers around it?

In truth, I don’t know if the movie could have been made without it, at least not without some serious restructuring and rewrites. 

But the scene does point out some important discrepancies about memory, and how they present these memories to a court. Le Gris remembers the event differently than Marguerite does, and this comes into play when he lies to the courts about it. 

The whole movie is founded on these inconsistencies. What is the truth to people? For many, it’s what they choose to remember and how they recount it. Carrouges is a kind and honorable husband, and Le Gris is a passionate and jilted lover. Marguerite, the most reliable source of them all, knows these men are nothing like what they believe themselves to be.

They tell us at the end of the movie that Carrouges died just a few years after the duel during the Crusades, leaving Marguerite and her young son as the masters of his estate. Marguerite never remarried. 

As for how her detailed life should be depicted, there is no black-and-white answer — the same for all stories of sexual assault. And though I enjoyed the film as a whole, there is no doubt something heavy that hangs over you after having seen it. 

I try to take comfort in the ending of her story and hope that she and others who have faced similar circumstances would find a way to cement their happiness — in a world determined to smother it. 

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