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Alias: Season Three

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In Gladiator, there’s the great line, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” That thought is the foundation for The Last Duel’s greatest value: seeing how those events from centuries ago still echo through society today.

The Duellists

Jodie Comer is Marguerite
Jodie Comer is Marguerite

The Last Duel recounts a case of rape in 14th century France, a case which fueled a feud between the men at the center of the scandal at a time when the crime was deemed to be primarily an offense against the husband’s personal reputation. The physical crime committed against the wife was at best a secondary concern and the rape itself was viewed as merely a property crime, with the woman, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Free Guy), being the subservient wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley), while Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) was the man accused of the crime.

Ridley Scott’s movie — revisiting some of the turf he captured in 1978’s The Duellists — is a case of narrative cleverness getting in the way of and clouding the heart of the story. The screenplay — by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener — is based on the 2004 book by Eric Jager, a true story pieced together by Jager’s meticulous historical research (that said, the “for reals” last duel in Paris was in much more recent history, 1967).

The problem is Damon and Affleck — pairing up on a screenplay for the first time since their controversial Oscar win for Good Will Hunting 24 years ago — have chopped up the story to present three different points of view, each representing a chapter in the movie’s narrative. That approach isn’t fully supported by the source material and it leads to some tedious tangents.

Attempting to strengthen the argument for this storytelling structure, the strategically curated production notes indicate Damon wrote the chapter for his character, Carrouges, while Affleck wrote from the point of view of Le Gris (whom he was originally going to portray before passing the role over to Driver) and Holofcener tackled the third chapter, the female perspective of Marguerite, since Damon and Affleck wisely wanted to infuse that account with a female writer’s voice.

Harsh Times

The differences in point of view between Carrouges and Le Gris are at times amusing, particularly as Carrouges’ own account paints himself as a virtual saint and do-gooder while Le Gris basically acknowledges he’s a bit of a player and self-impressed ladies’ man. Le Gris’ chapter undermines his own defense; he confesses to the crime but is spurred on to cover it up by none other than Count Pierre d’Alencon, a slimy power player and a role that is perfect for Affleck. It certainly does nothing to restore Affleck’s real-life tarnished reputation as an adulterous lecher. (At one point, Pierre encourages his friend Jacques with the invitation, “Come in! Take your pants off!” Pierre, turns out, could use some help in entertaining his harem of naked young women playing around in his bedroom.)

The dueling points of view are to be expected, but it is a structure that also allows for the broadening of the canvas to include various bits of back story, more of the insights of politics and ambitions driving the men. Unfortunately, a lot of that material gets into the weeds and doesn’t make for particularly compelling drama. To that end, more should’ve been made of Carrouges’ troubled past and the loss of both his wife and son to the harsh world of plagues and premature death in medieval times.

It also would’ve been interesting if Damon and Affleck delved more into the heart of the French attraction to the duel. France was a hotbed for the practice and, of course, human nature took it too far, with the slightest offense leading to yet another challenge for yet another duel. It could be thought of as the 14th century equivalent to a TikTok challenge. As the mortality rate grew, the voices of reason finally cried out and the practice was banned. But, as told here, the teenage King Charles VI agreed to one more duel as the best way to find the answer. In the custom of the day, God would protect the one telling the truth, so it was a surefire way for justice to prevail.

Ultimately, the material would’ve been better served with a pared back approach, though. Clocking in at 152 minutes, it’s still the last hour that packs the most punch as Marguerite reveals her side of the story and uncovers the social mores and biases that impacted her life, aspects largely ignored by the male-driven culture and social norms.

Also in that final hour, it’s the titular duel that allows Ridley Scott to finally do what he does best: filmmaking with a visual style that makes an indelible impression.

The Value of History

Matt Damon is Carrouges
Matt Damon is Carrouges

Marguerite’s view is what ignites the movie’s most compelling emotions. If Carrouges loses the duel that he himself has demanded, Marguerite could be stripped, hair shorn and burned at the stake. He is, she reminds him, ultimately risking her life for his pride.

And then there’s this twist: six months after the alleged rape, the trial begins and Marguerite is six months pregnant. It’s an obvious question as she testifies during the hearing to determine if a duel is warranted. Who’s the father?

Marguerite’s pregnancy offers up the movie’s most valuable parallels with today’s society. As Marguerite’s account faces skepticism and criticism from all sides, including her own female friends, there’s a certain reasoning of the time that can’t go unacknowledged. Rape, it is posited, cannot cause pregnancy because science tells us there is no rape if the woman experiences “pleasure.” It is “pleasure” that yields pregnancy.

Now, of course, in this enlightened age, that rationale is laughable.

If humanity survives long enough, what will the historians and storytellers seven centuries from now make of today’s sharpest minds? “Science” has been the guiding light for arguments around vaccinations and global warming, among other hot button issues, but “science” is still dependent on man’s own limited capacities and frailties of the day.

It is, in other words, some delicious food for thought. And, dear reader, before the torches of cancel culture are ignited, realize the scribe of this review is fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, a good journalist questions everything and is beholden only to finding the truth. Educated, healthy debate is valued over fracturing partisan rhetoric.

Besides the scientific angle, there’s also the supremely important need to study and understand history. With the Trump era still generating shockwaves, it’s interesting to think about the events that unfold in The Last Duel and compare them to a discussion that was had on stage during Salman Rushdie’s 2019 book tour in support of Quichotte. For his part, Rushdie is well-versed in understanding the dangers of supressing freedom of expression. But, as the local female interviewer suggested America was never a great country, her line of reasoning was weak. Turns out, at one point in time — decades ago — she couldn’t get a credit card because of the social norms prevailing at that time. The number of cards she carries now was not divulged.

Such a narrow reasoning would never have survived the brutality of the Middle Ages.