When it was first announced that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would reteam to tell the story of the last official trial by combat in France, fought over the rape of a noblewoman… well, “skepticism” is probably the kindest possible word. Despite its prestigious cast, audiences were dubious that a film focused so intently on rape as a narrative centerpiece could be anything other than tasteless. But the finished product of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel could not be more of a surprise, partially thanks to the collaborative writing process whereby Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the male perspective and, crucially, Nicole Holofcener penned the film’s final act, providing a much-needed woman’s point of view on the experiences of Marguerite. Rather than buying into the concept of a hypermasculine battle for a lady’s honor, it becomes instead a nuanced, sensitive exploration of assault that is unexpectedly feminist in its approach.
The central plot of The Last Duel is little more than conventional medieval fare. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a stubborn and oftentimes rash knight whose battle experience has never made up for his propensity for self-sabotage, is infuriated when his young, beautiful wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) tells him that she has been raped – And not just by anyone, but by his former-best-friend-turned-rival Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who in his eyes has stolen his property one too many times. The knight demands satisfaction, and challenges Le Gris to a duel, which would turn out to be the last ever officially-sanctioned trial by combat in French history. God will decide who is telling the truth, and who is dead.
But honestly, the actual story isn’t the point: it’s how the story is told that matters. The Last Duel features a good old-fashioned, Rashomon-style narrative broken down into three distinct perspectives: that of Carroughes, Le Gris, and finally, Marguerite herself. There are small differences between each of their versions of the events, well before we reach the actual sexual assault; in one sequence at a party, both men attribute a particularly magnanimous line to themselves, when Marguerite’s perspective reveals that it was actually spoken by someone else entirely. Her ability to subtly correct aspects of the male narrative is utterly imperative, as is the fact that her recollection of the story is told last.
It allows us to acknowledge that Le Gris is perhaps not lying, that he truly believes he committed no crime. Indeed, the preamble to their shocking encounter is a callback to an earlier scene, where he chases a group of girls around a bedroom as they put up a show of fighting back but then squeal in delight at his attentions. We can see why, in a culture where even women eager for sex had to display a pretense of objection, lest they be seen as impure, Le Gris could brush aside Marguerite’s cries as merely perfunctory. So it’s crucial that she get the final word: an opportunity to set the record straight.
What’s more, her segment is a rare glimpse into the inner life of a medieval noblewoman. Notably, in neither of the men’s stories is she perceived as a person in her own right. Carroughes regards her as little more than a piece of property, only significant for the lands she will bring with her dowry and the heir she will be expected to bear. Their very wedding is conducted between Carroughes and her father, with Marguerite standing off to the side, barely a party to her own destiny, let alone an active participant. Le Gris sees Marguerite as a physical manifestation of a chivalric feminine ideal, reading into her qualities that please him regardless of whether they actually exist.
But through this third and final segment of The Last Duel, we see her. While Carroughes is away fighting yet another fruitless war, she is expected to run the estate in his absence, and flourishes when left to her own devices. We see her intelligence, her aptitude for logistics and creative problem-solving, the simple joys of having something of value to do with her time. What a shame it is that the history of women like her is largely lost, while we maintain endless records of wars lost and won and lost again by men.
Without this trisected narrative structure, The Last Duel would lose so much of what makes it unique. It elegantly avoids becoming just another medieval action film that glorifies the arrogance of man and sidelines any woman who manages to make it into the final cut. By creating space for Marguerite, allowing her to exist as not merely an incidental piece of a man’s narrative but as an individual, the true story of The Last Duel is forever transformed from two tiresome men fighting over a woman, and is placed back into her capable hands. This is Marguerite’s story, and she’s the one who deserves to have the last word.