By Danièle Cybulskie
I must admit: I was very nervous to see The Last Duel. Based on a true story from medieval France (as told by Eric Jager in the book of the same name), the movie is a retelling of a trial by combat between two former friends – Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris – over the rape of Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite. There are thousands of places where a Hollywood blockbuster could get a story like this so very wrong. Fortunately, thanks to a sophisticated screenplay and brilliant performances by the entire cast, this is a movie that gets it right.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a documentary, and it does play fast and loose with the facts and medieval history in general (please read medievalists Sara McDougall’s and David Perry’s thoughtful review for Slate). However, I have an expectation that medieval movies won’t be completely true to history, but cater to modern audiences’ wants and expectations. The Last Duel is likely to give any medievalist a win on their bingo card: mud and blood, cold and wet, questionable (to say the least) hairstyles, gratuitous T&A, miserable arranged marriage, etc., etc. And yet. The screenwriters have done their homework, elevating the characters in the story beyond typical “medieval” cartoonishness to tell a story that is relevant in this cultural moment for many of the same reasons it was compelling in the fourteenth century.
The movie tells the events of the story from the perspective of the three main protagonists: first, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), then Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and finally Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). It’s evident from the outset that each of the stories will be sympathetic to the main character whose point of view we are following, so we see Damon’s Carrouges fighting valiantly for honour, Driver’s Le Gris fighting against being misunderstood (as he sees it), and Comer’s Marguerite fighting for justice. Telling the story in this way is a masterstroke: it gives an opportunity to show the ways in which culture and life experience have shaped not only how characters see the world, but how they experience the central event.
Damon’s Carrouges is a blunt instrument of a warrior, hotheaded, egocentric and prone to carrying grudges. His worldview is simplistic and misogynistic along classic medieval lines, but for this reason, his is the character that is most prone to falling into stereotype: it’s not necessary for him to be brutishly violent or a terrible husband, but it serves for contrast. Similarly, Comer’s Marguerite is slightly more innocent than strictly necessary, but this is a vehicle to introduce the audience to medieval thinking around sexuality and pregnancy for a start. Damon is at his best when he’s outraged (he seems a little less comfortable with the lines or perhaps the accent during calmer moments), but Comer is consistently brilliant, many times letting the audience in on her thoughts with her facial expressions alone – a difficult feat for any actor, especially when they’re performing the same scene in three different ways.
The crux of the film in terms of nuanced performances, however, necessarily falls to Driver in the character of Le Gris, who has to be convincing as someone who (in the two different retellings) is either (in his mind) a seducer or a rapist, using the same movements and the same lines. Driver manages the distinction extremely well in what is a difficult scene to watch both times, and the film walks the line well here by showing that what Le Gris does not consider to be wrong is still absolutely, unequivocally wrong.
Le Gris’ perspective on sexual assault is shown in the film to be informed by a culture of courtly love, as he participates in sex games based on pursuit (the film shows consent is still problematic in this context) and reads from a book outlining the rules for love – rules which were definitely part of medieval literary and court culture. He’s also enabled by his overlord Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, playing his role to perfection), who is cut from the same cultural cloth and encourages Le Gris to deny everything. Despite Le Gris’ protestation of innocence, he is brought before the French king to answer the charges in judicial combat (the titular “duel”), prompted by Carrouges out of what appears to be more pride than concern for justice on Marguerite’s behalf.
The film culminates in the actual trial by combat, the result of which I won’t spoil here (although it is a matter of historical record). The combat itself is very well choreographed and tense, delivering on the promised duel with the requisite amount of excitement and blood.
As a medievalist, there are definitely things to be found out of place. For example, it’s puzzling why the trial takes place next to a dilapidated abbey when we know it took place in the busy St. Martin des Champs. Similarly, Le Gris’ arms have been changed, when they are also a matter of record (to be fair, this is probably because they use the same colours as Carrouges’ and were probably too confusing). But this is nitpicking.
What audiences come to see when they go to a medieval movie is warfare and a good story. The Last Duel delivers on the combat and atmosphere people expect, and at the same time puts forth a story which is timely and timeless, using the Middle Ages as a vehicle to explore a crime that our society still struggles with. It does this by pulling on the threads of medieval culture, with varying degrees of accuracy, in a way that is cohesive and sensitive. The result is a movie that will satisfy expectations of the “medieval” while giving space for the humanity of actual medieval people, the difficulties they sometimes faced, and the ways in which we share many of those same difficulties. Much like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, his film The Last Duel is likely to open up laymen’s perspectives on medieval culture, and hopefully people’s perspectives on sexual assault. As a historian, I think both of these are valuable things, well worth a trip to the movies.
As a writer, professor, TEDx speaker, and podcaster, Danièle has been making the Middle Ages fun, entertaining, and accessible for over a decade. You can learn more about Danièle and her latest work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist