From the trailer, and its Hollywood A-list cast and director, you might expect The Last Duel to be an old-fashioned knights-in-shining-armour tale of romance and chivalry with winsome ladies, flashing swords and lots of colourful heraldry.
Well there are knights in armour and at least one winsome lady, and there’s even a joust, but The Last Duel is no mediaeval fantasy a la Robin Hood or the Arthurian legends. Far from it. The story is based on a meticulously researched historical case study that led to France’s last officially sanctioned trial by combat.
The trial took place in 1386. It was a contest between two French nobles, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his one-time friend, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) after Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accused Le Gris of raping her. The legal and social implications of this, and the fact that it’s a true story, give the film considerable historical interest and dramatic heft.
Director Ridley Scott starts his story with the endgame. The King and Queen sit on an elevated platform flanked by their lords and ladies. Pennants fly the fleur-de-lys from all corners of the walled arena. Behind the walls, off to the side in bleak stone caverns, the combatants are painstakingly clanked and bolted into suits of armour, mounted on their horses and handed their jousting poles. Eventually they emerge and turn to charge at each other, thundering down the muddy field with deadly intent.
It’s a familiar image, but thanks to the gritty realism and painstaking detail with which Scott handles the scene, we know this is no Camelot.
At that point the film cuts to flashback, to the first of three flashbacks in fact which tell the story from the perspectives of each of the three main characters – Carrouges, Le Gris and Marguerite. We go back to a time when the two men were comrades-in-arms of equal rank. The story is set during the Hundred Years War between England and France, and if you’re a history buff like me you might scurry home to google the references to sundry campaigns and battles, but if not it doesn’t matter: the sketchy outlining of the historical context doesn’t detract from the central human drama.
Which starts when Carrouges contracts his marriage to Marguerite. This is an interesting story in its own right. She is beautiful and her father is rich. Why would she accept an impecunious minor noble like him? Because her father is reviled as a traitor for having once sided with the English, and many think he’s lucky to have kept his head, let alone his land.
As time passes, the relationship between the two men changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Their first falling-out comes from a dispute over Marguerite’s dowry, which contains a choice parcel of land Carrouges especially covets. Before it can be settled on him, one of her father’s creditors manages to snaffle it for himself with the aid of Le Gris, who’s good with figures, letters and the law, unlike the illiterate Carrouges.
Le Gris is educated and urbane and has the favor of the King (Charles VI, played by Ben Affleck). But Carrouges is not entirely at a disadvantage; he’s such a good soldier that he’s eventually knighted for his military service, which puts him above Le Gris in the feudal hierarchy.
Carrouges determines at one point to let bygones be bygones and consents to take Marguerite to a gathering hosted by Le Gris. Perhaps he wants to show off his trophy wife in front of his rival. Marguerite is delighted that her dour, possessive husband is opening up to some fun.
Carrouges even instructs Marguerite to kiss their host in formal greeting, and allows them to dance. Marguerite clearly enjoys the attention of a man who matches her own level of refinement. Gossiping with the other ladies, Marguerite concedes that she finds Le Gris handsome, a remark which comes back to haunt her.
Le Gris is clearly smitten, and takes her flirtatiousness as a sexual invitation. He contrives to visit her while Carrouges is away on campaign and he knows Marguerite to be alone and undefended.
It’s a long film – just over two and a half hours – but this is barely enough time to fit in the personal and social backstories, not to mention all the convoluted threads of feudal politics and ecclesiastical law which bring the parties to a position where the men have to fight to the death and, depending on which one wins, Marguerite herself will be burned at the stake if it’s determined that she lied.
The trial process may look barbaric to our eyes, but it’s interesting to note that it did at least unfold to the letter of the law.
The screenplay was written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and respected writer/director Nicole Holofcener, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Mediaeval France. Full credit to them all for producing a film that transcends fashionable preoccupations in modern cinema to deal with universal themes that unite us across the generations: power, property, sexual obsession, jealousy, friendship, loyalty and betrayal.
I like that the movie doesn’t take Marguerite out of her historical context and make her into a feminist heroine to suit modern sensibilities. She may not regard her husband as an ideal consort, but she is – she must be, considering the awful risk she takes – a virtuous woman who has sworn fidelity to him and ultimately trusts him to defend her honour. She is a woman of her time and place.
As are the men creatures of their time and place. It’s hardly news that mediaeval France was a patriarchy, and the movie doesn’t waste time laboring the point or nominating villains and heroes to suit modern gender politics. It does, however, make clear whose version of the rape allegation it believes.
Ridley Scott has a talent for making his historical epics look authentic. Think the Roman empire depicted in Gladiator. His 2005 Kingdom of Heaven gave us a convincing version of Europe and the Middle East during the Crusades. Both were loosely based on true stories, but the scarcity of known facts meant they were essentially fiction. The Last Duel deals with roughly the same time period as Kingdom of Heaven, but is enriched by the greater availability of factual source material, and for that reason is I think a better movie.
It’s not a light-hearted story, but during one of many episodes where knights on horseback approach castle walls, my irreverent companion whispered that at any moment she expected the French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to appear on the battlements.