‘The Last Duel’ is a Searing Confirmation of How Little Has Changed

Consider a timeline where 20th Century Studios had released The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s 2021 film that wasn’t House of Gucci, six weeks later then its fatal October release date. No Time to Die wouldn’t have trounced the film at the box office. It would’ve landed right in the prime of awards season, boosting its profile. Scott wouldn’t have thrown millennials and their f*cking cell phones under the bus for it flopping. (It grossed just under $30 million on a $100 million budget.)

Most importantly, audiences might’ve drawn more explicit connections between the film and the ongoing debate over the autonomy women have over their bodies.

It’s difficult to watch The Last Duel, now available digitally, without considering the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Mississippi case that could potentially rewrite reproductive healthcare rights in the United States. Although the situations are centuries and an ocean apart, the film bears striking similarities.

As the title suggests, The Last Duel tells the story of the last judicial fight to the death in the French Middle Ages. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) accuses his former best friend Jacques de Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and challenges him to fight for her honor. Scott splits the film into three parts, each exploring how the three main characters perceived the events leading up to the duel – including the rape itself. Each perspective is complex and richly reflects the attitudes, customs, and prejudices of the times. Scott carefully unspools the full scope of the circumstances to ultimately show how everyone considers Marguerite to be insignificant and utterly disposable in what should be her story of survival and justice.

Adam Driver and Matt Damon in The Last Duel (Courtesy: 20th Century Studios)

Scott and screenwriters Damon, Ben Affleck (who also plays Count Pierre), and Nicole Holofcener imbue each section with a straightforward honesty that authentically reflects each character while challenging the mores that precipitated Marguerite’s attack. You believe Jean believes he is fighting on his wife’s behalf, but it’s clear he only regards her as a bargaining chip to bolster his flagging fortunes and an excuse to challenge the man he believes is constantly undercutting him. Jacques thinks he’s an honorable man (despite his misogynist, violent philandering) who often defends Jean from Count Pierre’s insults (even though he does steal Jean’s land-owning dowry). Jacques insists that he didn’t rape Marguerite because he loves her. That “love” stems from a polite intellectual challenge, which he heinously morphs into a cat-and-mouse game when he attacks her.

Even though the film pushes back against their warped realities, Jean and Jacques’ parts do set up a hero versus villain clash. Marguerite’s section, which Scott labels as “the truth” in its title card, stunningly complicates that narrative. We learn that Jean is not the put-upon victim he imagines himself to be: he is distant, inconsiderate, and thoroughly disinterested in pleasing his wife. That final detail is vital, as both Jean and the French court weaponize her arousal against her, presenting facts about sexual response that modernity has long since dispelled. These claims and other legalities of the time – that rape wasn’t a crime against the woman but rather a property dispute against her husband – are grounded in the belief that men should have dominion over women’s sexuality. It is a belief that modernity has struggled to leave behind.

By the time we get to the duel itself, Scott has overlaid the physical conflict with overwhelming emotional stakes: both the duelers and Marguerite’s lives could end (hers as penance for Jean’s failure). Scott stages the fight with all the gritty, heady intensity you’d expect from the director of Gladiator. Every strike and blow between Jean and Jacques, and each cut to Marguerite’s stoic but terrified gaze, is fraught with an exhilarating dread about who will get the upper hand and claim this terrible victory. When the duel concludes, the realization lands almost immediately that the winner is irrelevant. There is no victory for Marguerite, brutalized, mocked, invalidated, humiliated, threatened, and ignored by the people and systems around her. 

Matt Damon and Jodie Comer in The Last Duel (Courtesy: 20th Century Studios)

Scott challenges The Last Duel’s cast to modulate their characters across three perspectives and preserve their essence while identifying shifts in demeanor and behavior that align with each character’s perception of events. Jodie Comer is the most adept at this; she has the firmest grip of Marguerite’s intelligence, deference, and strength, even as Jean and Jacques use and abuse it to suit their agendas. Adam Driver makes a much stronger impression here than in House of Gucci, leveraging his trademark intensity and imposing stature to menacing effect. Damon is fine across all three parts, but he is surprisingly the most compelling in the last, thanks to how deftly Marguerite takes apart Jean’s self-aggrandizement. Affleck is a tremendous source of scenery-chewing arrogance and contempt as Count Pierre, nearly stealing scenes away from Damon and Driver with his cutting delivery.

The Last Duel is easy to read as a #MeToo parable, reflecting how women are frequently abused by powerful men and infrequently believed by everyone else. (There was some consternation about Damon and Affleck’s involvement in the script, partially because of their proximity to Harvey Weinstein.) That is an insufficiently narrow lens in which to view the film. The film indicts the cultural, legal, and religious institutions designed to undermine women at every conceivable turn, no matter the costs. Men aren’t fighting to the death to ascertain a woman’s value. However, there are still systems and attitudes in place that perpetuate the same existential struggles that Marguerite faced before, during, and after her assault. By plainly highlighting how little has changed in the centuries since that fateful confrontation, Scott has crafted a relevant, even vital film.

It’s a shame that poor timing, or audiences’ fears of confronting those harsh realities, limited its reach.

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