The Last Duel

At its core, the story The Last Duel tells is straightforward.  Set in France circa 1386, it concerns itself with three characters whose lives become fatefully intertwined: Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the woman who both covet, albeit for vastly different reasons.  Based on our knowledge of other movies or television shows, one might comfortably assume that these three would comprise a standard love triangle.  As the movie progresses, however, any preconceived notions that the story will be romantic in any way, shape or form are thoroughly and decisively trounced.  

The Last Duel begins with an almost casual, unassuming tone, concerning itself with Carrouges and Le Gris fighting the good fight, as they are commanded to do.  A reckless action by Carrouges puts him on the outs with Count Pierre (Ben Affleck).  Le Gris, intelligent and ingratiating, strikes up a relationship with Pierre, who quickly becomes prosperous, often at the expense of his former friend Carrouges.  As the enmity between the two grows, the movie’s tone dramatically shifts from uncomfortable, then to brutal, ending with terrifying.  As a man in the audience, I likened the overall experience to being repeatedly punched in the gut.  I suspect women will be able to take solace (relief?) in how the movie ends, but the journey itself is long and arduous, regardless of your gender affiliation.

The movie clearly is a polemic, a categorization I don’t apply dismissively.  The Last Duel may be a tale involving medieval knights set in the fourteenth century, but it is also unequivocally (and unapologetically) a #MeTo story.  The movie serves as a pretext for the argument that the injustices on display in the movie have been endured by women for centuries, long before there was a hashtag associated with it.

Directed with gusto by Ridley Scott, scenes in the movie will certainly echo with those familiar with Gladiator.  As expected, there are scenes of snow-flecked battle vistas that work in spite of being poorly framed.  The scope of the battle gets lost among screams, sudden spurts of blood and clanging swords.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are where Ridley excels, and the duel for which the movie gets its name is a tour de force.

The emotional and moral center in The Last Duel is Marguerite.  As acted by the incredibly capable Jodie Comer, she brings raw, emotional honesty to a character whose life is in the hands of men who are pigheaded, self-absorbed and deceitful by varying degrees.  Matt Damon fares well as human battle axe Carrouges, useful during a fight but simplistic and vacant in all other environments.  Adam Driver serves up oily charm as the opportunistic Le Gris, employing 

his intellect only to satisfy his desires.  Damon and Affleck’s portrayals are a bit heavy-handed and cartoonish.  Damon’s Carrouges is presented as thick-headed and prideful, and could have used more subtlety.  Affleck’s performance is geared towards comic relief, and comes across as a strange mashup of Jeremy Irons aristocratic drawl and John Malcovich debauchery.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Last Duel is an incredibly riveting and engrossing endurance test.  This is the rare movie that is completely unsparing towards its characters and its audience, forcing both to relive a brutal sexual assault in its entirety twice.  What the movie lacks subtlety it makes up for with an unsparing view of the reality for women, past and present.  Few movies set out to intentionally damage their audience, and this one definitely succeeds, dishing out a bloody nose and a black eye along the way (metaphorically speaking).  I’ve long since recovered from my wounds, but I suspect the resulting scars will never completely fade away.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.  Recommended.

In the beginning of The Last Duel, Carrouges and Le Gris are friends, squires who fight on behalf of France and Charles VI.  Carrouges is known for his fierceness and bravery in battle, and the two are among the forces ordered to protect the bridge that leads to the city of Limoges.  Unfortunately, Carrouges’ reckless actions force a confrontation with English troops that results in a costly defeat, provoking the ire of Count Pierre.  While dining at Pierre’s castle, Le Gris impresses with his ability to read Latin, a skill he picked up when training for the priesthood.  When Pierre learns that Le Gris is adept at mathematics as well, he asks Le Gris to help get his finances in order. Le Gris accepts and also assumes responsibility for collecting monies owed to Pierre, funds ostensibly used to finance ongoing military campaigns and security.  Le Gris observes Pierre’s hedonistic lifestyle and willingly participates in the debauchery.

Faced with the inability to pay his debt to Pierre, Carrouges marries Marguerite to improve his finances.  Because he did not receive valuable land that had been earmarked for him as part of Marguerite’s dowry, Carrouges must continue to fight on behalf of the king for money.  Believing his property was taken unfairly, Carrouges files an appeal to Pierre, which he denies.  Incensed at being sued, Pierre further antagonizes Carrouges by awarding Le Gris command of the fort Carrouges was to inherit from his father.

In time, Carrouges and Le Gris meet publicly and put their animosity behind them.  Le Gris is immediately attracted to Marguerite and interprets her genial behavior towards him as a  reciprocation of his feelings.  One day, when Marguerite is left alone in the castle, Le Gris tricks his way inside and sexually assaults her.  Marguerite, devastated by the incident, recounts what happened to Carrouges when he returns.

Carrouges demands justice for what Le Gris did to his wife, but Pierre rebuffs his entreaties and, convinced that the encounter was consensual, advises Le Gris to deny that anything happened.  Carrouges takes his appeal directly to the king, insisting on a duel with Le Gris to settle the matter before everyone and God.  Le Gris responds, again denying that he raped Marguerite.  For her part, Marguerite must answer questions before the king’s court about her relations with her husband, and repeatedly confirm that she was raped.  The king decides that a duel to the death will be held between Carrouges and Le Gris to settle the matter.  The winner will be deemed as having spoken truthfully, while the loser will be judged as having lied before God.

Similar to the movie Rashomon, The Last Duel is compelling because it tells the same story multiple times, with each rendition told from a different character’s perspective.  (Showtime’s The Affair is a recent example of this narrative device.)  A key element of Rashomon is that the audience is given the position of being able to see how each character generally views themselves, as well as how the other characters view each other.  In Rashomon, every character who gives their side of the story is an unreliable narrator except the last one.  Each character in turn portrays themself in the best possible light, as a decent person with good intentions, regardless of how the story turns out.  It is only when the last character tells the truth that we find out what actually happened, and how badly each of the principals behaved.

The Last Duel follows the same structure, with Carrouges and then Le Gris offering up their versions of what happened.  In Carrouges and Le Gris’ minds, they are good, decent men with minor flaws.  Their biggest problem is how others misunderstand them.  Both believe that they have done nothing that would warrant condemnation.  

When Marguerite gives her side of the story (presented as “the truth”), we see just how awful each man really is.  From Marguerite’s perspective, both men are horrible, with few redeeming qualities.  Le Gris, because of his sexual assault of Marguerite, is clearly the worst of the two.   Carrouges still leaves much to be desired, and is incompetent as a warrior, husband and land owner.  Carrouges is depicted as a man who believes the world is allied against him, when his own actions are the cause of his misery and discontent.

Le Gris believes he’s an intelligent man who is fair in his dealings with other men.  He sees himself as a romantic, and believes that he has fallen in love with Marguerite after a few brief,  cordial encounters.  In reality, he’s a blatant opportunist who seizes every chance to enrich himself at the expense of others, particularly Carrouges.  Le Gris covets the life Carrouges has, one of respect, property and a marriage to a beautiful woman.  With a growing sense of entitlement and support from Pierre, Le Gris receives property that had been promised to Carrouges, and the responsibility as commander of the fort.  The one thing he cannot secure with Pierre’s largess is Carrouges’ wife.

To fulfill his carnal desire for Marguerite, Le Gris explicitly takes her against her will.  He convinces himself that Marguerite’s resistance is just her being coquettish.  In his mind, she may be saying “no”, but she really means “yes”.  That both of them “want it”, and that in the end, they both are equally to blame for what happened.  The movie takes the extraordinary measure of forcing us to watch Le Gris raping Marguerite twice to show how self-delusional Le Gris actually is.  He’s convinced himself that what he did wasn’t rape, and refused to acknowledge that fact right up to the moment of his death.  When we see Marguerite’s version of the story, we know that Le Gris not only lied to others about what happened, but also lied to himself.  

Through Marguerite’s eyes, we see Carrouges and Le Gris completely unvarnished, with all of their flaws laid bare.  Carrouges is thick-headed and petulant, blind to his own faults and the role he plays in his own misfortune.  He’s a dullard, a lousy landlord and a cold, uncaring husband.  Le Gris is intelligent and charming, but takes from others without an iota of guilt to satisfy his desires.  

Not content to show how bad Carrouges, Le Gris and Pierre are, The Last Duel implicates society itself.  More specifically, it shows how a male-dominated society serves to both enable  and protect men who commit bad acts.  The civic structure of society, represented by Pierre, the clergy and the courts, all act in concert to prevent Le Gris from being punished for his bad deeds.  Through its depiction of Pierre, the movie implies that all men in those institutions have  probably committed indefensible acts themselves.  When one is in trouble, they all come to his aid, just like any old boy’s club would do.

If The Last Duel is to be taken at face value, the “How to Defend Yourself against Sexual Assault Allegations” handbook hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  Pierre’s advice to Le Gris on how to handle Marguerite’s accusations sounded eerily familiar.  Ignore the allegation.  Deny, deny, deny.  Convince yourself that the act was consensual and respond as such.  Blame the victim.  Tarnish the victim’s reputation.  Use societal institutions to wear the accuser down.  Humiliate the victim by having them recount the act in public.  Convince the accuser that achieving justice ultimately isn’t worth the aggravation.

The ironic element in The Last Duel is how Marguerite ultimately obtains justice by the king and Carrouges, two men who in all honestly probably don’t care about her at all.  Carrouges views Le Gris’ actions as yet another slight against him.  King Charles is just bored, and approves of the duel because he’s bored. (As depicted, the king looks and acts like the result of generation after generation of cousins marrying.)

So how did Carrouges defeat Le Gris?  I’m certainly not an expert on duels or medieval combat techniques, but Carrouges had several key advantages.  Carrouges is the more battle-tested of the two.  Carrouges had fought in several battles recently, while Le Gris spent his time carousing.  Le Gris fared better initially, but Carrouges was able to weather a drawn-out fight longer than Le Gris.  Carrouges, with his stocky build, is the stronger of the two and eventually overpowers Le Gris.  That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

As for the movie’s two depictions of Marguerite being raped by Le Gris, both were squirm-inducing and uncomfortable to watch.  I have to think that the same effect on the audience could have been achieved without depicting every second of the act twice.  Cutting away or moving the camera away would have spared the audience some agony, and I still would have had much sympathy for Marguerite and her ordeal.

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