The Last Duel is a sprawling movie — a drama that mixes past and present-day politics but with intelligence that makes it real messy but gluing. An epic movie that shows two opposing sides in battle. It’s 1386, Adam Driver and the sullen knight Sir Jean de Carrouges — that’s Matt Damon. Jean’s wife, Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, are in Paris, watching anxiously as the two men are about to clash lances, but the movie suddenly takes us away and down several years to help us understand what brings these three characters to that moment.
The Last Duel is based on a true story that it tells no fewer than three times, each time from a different character’s perspective. The script, adapted from Eric Jager’s nonfiction book, emerged from a unique collaboration by three writers. Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the first two chapters focusing on the men, while Nicole Holofcener took up the third chapter with Marguerite as her focal point. It’s an ingenious approach to what plays like a medieval story, revealing the dynamics of power, class and gender in an era when women were regarded as just a property of the male.
Carrouges, played by Damon is a brave warrior from a long line of brave warriors, but also a proud, petty man with a chip on his shoulder and a scowl. He is first spotted in 1370 with Le Gris fighting valiantly against the English and it blossoms into close friendship. But as like many friendship Carrouges begins to feel resentful when superior — Count Pierre d’Alençon, played by “Affleck” a saucy libertine takes Le Gris under his wing. Pierre gives Le Gris a coveted piece of land that was originally intended for Carrouges as part of his wife Marguerite’s dowry, this brings years of legal dispute and struggles.
One fateful evening, Marguerite comes forward and tells her husband that while he was away, Le Gris came to their castle in Normandy and raped her. Carrouges takes the accusation public, setting in motion a duel between himself and Le Gris, which would become the last trial by combat officially recognized in France.
At this instant, the flash back cuts and takes us back to the beginning, now particularly replaying events from Le Gris’ vantage point. As one of Pierre’s closest allies, Le Gris has come to enjoy a life of privilege and debauchery, and Driver basically plays him as God’s gift to women. That stokes his tensions with Carrouges, who eventually gets knighted and demands that Le Gris show him optimum respect.
Somehow within the period love comes to play, Le Gris falls madly in love with Marguerite and feels that Marguerite reciprocates his feelings. That brings us to their fateful encounter, in which Le Gris convinces himself that Marguerite’s protests are merely the signs of a guilty conscience. But even though the movie is showing us his version of events, it rejects his delusion completely: What is displayed is an unmistakable sexual assault, in which Marguerite turns him down and tries to push him away.
The third chapter, comes from the Marguerite’s perspective, picturing the rape scene, and now even more apparently shows her trauma. But also this chapter snaps into focus the moral arc of the story. After so much boorish male behavior, fully embodied by Damon and Driver, the fierce intelligence and humanity of Comer’s performance is like a balm. Marguerite emerges as by far the most honest and clear-eyed of the movie’s three leads, heroic in her refusal to stay silent about what she endured.
Near the end of the film, Marguerite finds herself on trial, forced to defend her rape allegation in a court full of men trying to discredit her. The sequence plays like dark satire, suggesting how much has changed and also how much hasn’t. And then there’s the duel, which feels almost subversively anticlimactic: It delivers all the gory virtuosity you’d expect from Ridley Scott, but something about it rings deliberately hollow. It hardly matters which man wins, the movie seems to be saying, in a world where women are destined to lose.