The Cinema Addiction Continues: The Last Duel
After watching Chris Stuckmann’s review of The Last Duel, which heartbreakingly explained why it should not have bombed at the box office, I decided I had to prioritise watching this film.
This time I went to the Event Cinema in Parramatta and saw the film at the only time available. This was 11:00 AM which is a bit of a death sentence for a movie to be on at. As I expected, I was the only one in the cinema, which for me is always nice. But considering the financial circumstances of the film, it deserved more. I had the complete proper cinema experience this time, frozen coke with Fanta, mint choc top and at the moment, they have limited time only Chicken Crimpy favoured popcorn, so I got that.
And so, before I spoil anything, I want to say that I had a blast with this film. It’s definitely one of my favourite Ridley Scott films now. I would say in terms of my mental ranking at the moment, Alien is first, Blade Runner is second, and The Last Duel is third. Gladiator, The Martian and Thelma and Louise probably come after that. So this film is really up there, and if you don’t watch it, you’re an idiot (unless you genuinely have a sensitivity to the film’s subject matter). In any case, I highly recommend it, so please watch it if you haven’t already because it genuinely deserves attention.
The Last Duel is about the last officially recognised judicial duel fought in France and the rape of Marguerite to whom it concerns.
I am fascinated with films in a pre-1500 AD setting because - well - it was the actual dark ages! In this case, the story is set during the late 1300s, and if you know anything about this time, it was that the Black Death was a problem back then. This is more a background detail that happens in the film and more so in the dialogue rather than shown, but it is still essential to bring up because it affects the characters’ financial situations.
It’s also interesting because it almost feels like an unintentional parallel to COVID19 right now. In comparison, the film draws many intentional parallels of Marguerite’s rape to today’s #MeToo movements. And that can be a bit disturbing because we like to think times have changed a lot since the plague. But the film makes it uncomfortably clear that no, it has not. Not really.
So this film got a lot of flack for showing the “suffering of men over a woman’s rape”. Having seen the movie for myself, I think this is a bad faith representation of the film. Yes, the screenplay is the second written collaboration of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but many people seem to be ignoring that Nicole Holofcener is also the film’s screenwriter. And to me, at least it showed.
The film does not focus on men suffering at all really.
So here is what happens the film has three “chapters” the first one is the “Truth According to Jean de Carrouges”. We see Jean’s (played by Matt Damon) perspective where he is wronged by both Count Pierre (Ben Affleck), and his friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a land dispute as Jean had acquired two estates from his father’s passing and a dowry as part of his marriage to Marguerite de Thibouville (played by Jodie Comer) both of which are taken from him. And so after some time passes Jean more or less makes amends, at least with Jacques. His wife then tells him that during a period of time when she was alone in the castle with no one present, Jacques came over and raped her.
From Jean’s perspective, we, the audience, sympathise with his character. Which initially was interesting because his character is one of traditional knightly honour. As he sees himself, we see him to put how Stuckmann put it, the hero of his own story. His story is one to avenge his wife and achieve justice, as we might expect from the director of Gladiator.
Really though, my finding this interesting in retrospect was suspicion because generally, we now know this idea of a knight was essentially a myth. A rather convenient patriarchal myth, you might say. But what was genuinely interesting was that it was Jean’s idea to spread the word of his wife’s rape to get past Count Pierre’s influence so he could take the matter to court and eventually do a trial by combat. And I did look up the true story that this film is based on, and a lot of it was pretty accurate and on point. Cancel culture has always existed.
But of course, what we later learn from the final chapter makes this seemingly honourable decision rather selfish. But I’ll explain that when it’s time.
Chapter Two is Jacques Le Gris’ perspective. So I think some of the pre-controversy of the film was possibly because of the rapist’s perspective being included, but to me, this was essential because we get to see how this behaviour and mindset gets produced. We see Jacques start as a relatively neutral character who gets influenced both by Pierre, a man in power, and the media he consumes (in this case, it was a Latin book), the “book of love” that misconstrues how to see women as just sexual objects. During a pre-orgy with Pierre, there’s also a scene where he playfully chases a woman around, which mirrors what he does to Marguerite when she tries to run away from him. We see how he pre-tricks his own brain into thinking what he does later is right. To be clear none of this framed in a way to make him sympathetic, but to show how this gets socialised and normalised.
When Jacques does rape Marguerite, it is unambiguously portrayed as what it is. Rape. It’s just that we also get to see how he delusions himself and tries to get Marguerite to see what happened in a way that is convenient for him. So instead of, he didn’t control himself; it becomes “they couldn’t control themselves”. It wasn’t rape; it was an “affair.” And when Pierre finds out about the allegation, he asks Jacques did she say “no”, to which Jacques claims she told a “courtesy protest” and insists he is innocent.
I think seeing this, for lack of a better word bullshitery, in a rape story is essential. Because this “no, it wasn’t that it was this actually” is rape culture.
Jacques knows what he did was wrong; he just wants to be seen as the good guy at the same time. He’s a lousy guy who aspires not to be a beacon of goodly knighthood but instead just be seen as that.
Lastly is chapter three, the truth, according to Marguerite. And it must be understood that the editing of the title card makes it a point that Marguerite’s side of the story is the actual truth of what happened. The filmmakers believe the female character in this story. Who incidentally was a real person. The way the title card points this out is by having the last words to fade a way be “the truth”.
From Marguerite’s perspective, we learn that Jean’s financial woes that lost him his estates were not necessarily his being the victim of the sneaky treachery of Pierre and Jacques. Instead, he failed to collect the rent his tenants owed him adequately, which Marguerite sets right. This is one of many times where the suspicion of Jean’s knightliness is confirmed.
We see that he was not the gentle lover and romantic dutiful husband he built himself up as at the beginning of the film but rather a rough, uncaring and unnoticing of his wife. He does not have any qualities. It’s also worth noting this lack of qualities was brought up in Jacques perspective as another justification for raping Marguerite since she is “burdened” with such a man.
Regardless Marguerite makes do with the man she has been promised to. And when Jacques rapes her, it is with begrudgement she tells Jean what happened since she cannot legally right her wrong on her own behalf in this time. And Jean only does so on her behalf because once again, he sees himself as the victim in this, not her, only this time we see the pathetic outrage from Marguerite’s perspective.
Then we learn that this honourable plea to trial by combat is incredibly selfish because while it will so-call restore his and his wife’s honour in this society, it is not only going to cost his life potentially but her life too. And the stakes get higher due to the fact that Marguerite is pregnant and later has a son, and if Jean loses, according to the rules, it means God is saying she is lying, and there’ll be an implication that her son might be a “bastard” child so likely no one would take care of him after his parents die.
While all the “exciting” stuff is being done by the men in the story, throughout the film, the camera carefully makes the viewer pay attention to the women’s faces, who quite often in these medieval stories don’t get this attention. We see the face of Pierre’s wife when no one is looking and the face of the Queen of France looking to the side. And they’re all with an expression of wanting to speak up while these men have their glorified moments but painfully knowing they will not be permitted.
The film also portrays two forms of envy involving two female characters. There’s Jean’s mother, who basically does not want Marguerite to have justice for her rape because, according to her, she was raped too, and she “got over it” so why can’t she do the same? She also remarks that she wasn’t always old; she used to be beautiful, yet it would seem that she did not get her justice despite that apparent value. It would seem that the hard time Marguerite has been having with her mother-in-law throughout the film is akin to Snow White. And then there’s Marguerite’s friend, who before the rape said she found Jacques to be handsome and said that she believed her own husband to be ugly. And when she learns of Marguerite’s rape by Jacques, she doesn’t believe it, she becomes accusatory instead, and it comes across as jealousy. Both for her seemingly better relationship with her husband, her beauty and for “having a man” she could not have. By the way, you should check out Contrapoint’s video on envy if you want to know more about that comprehensively.
The final showdown between Jean and Jacques is electric. Because of this prominence of God choosing the victor, you end up begging that God will give Marguerite a break and let her husband at least win this one and not be impotent like in the rest of the film so far. I’ve been watching many Kung Fu films lately, so I wasn’t expecting much from the combat in this European set film. But to my surprise, it was quite a spectacle. Adam Driver almost stabs Matt Damon in the dick! Dude!
And to absolute relief, Jean does come out victorious, but while the crowd cheers and praises Jean, the camera focuses on Marguerite instead as the real victor. Though one who is displeased with how her tragedy has become an unnecessary spectacle.