Finally, the medieval #MeToo movie starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck we’ve long been waiting for. Well, okay—maybe such a thing didn’t top the list of priorities after Hollywood and so many other industries were finally forced to reckon with a culture of rampant sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. But the movie, The Last Duel (in theaters October 15), does exist and it, too, must be reckoned with.
Directed by Ridley Scott with a script by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, The Last Duel is based on a true story delineated in Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same title. It concerns the last official judicial duel in France, a bloody event that happened in December of 1386. Marguerite de Carrouges, the wife of knight Jean de Carrouges, accused a well-connected squire, Jacques Le Gris, of rape. After a typically frustrating trial process, Jean challenged Le Gris to a duel to the death, overseen by King Charles VI. If Jean won, it would be understood as God vindicating Marguerite. If he lost (and died), Marguerite would have been executed for making a false accusation.
In that pile of injustice upon injustice, the filmmakers find a perhaps obvious tether to today. There has been a growing social movement to significantly alter so much of culture’s response to sexual assault, so that women are more readily believed when they come forward, rather than having their stories so quickly, and so regularly, dismissed as a regretted but consensual encounter—or, quite often, as an outright lie. To that end, Damon once played a spluttering, ridiculous Brett Kavanaugh in a Saturday Night Live cold-open sketch, mocking the testimonial histrionics of the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice as he answered credible assault accusations made by Christine Blasey Ford during his confirmation hearings.
It seems unlikely that performing in that sketch is what inspired Damon to take up the work of The Last Duel. But the film and the sentiments expressed during Kavanaugh’s hearings are certainly related. Contemporary commentary is deeply embedded in Scott’s film, half clumsily, half cleverly.
The film is structured as a triptych, telling roughly the same story from three different perspectives. In the first, centered on Jean (Damon), we see a brave soldier of the king facing financial hardship and political ostracizing upon his return home. He marries Marguerite (Jodie Komer) and the two enjoy a rather sweet relationship despite the cold, dowry-focused arrangement of their union. Le Gris (Adam Driver) is a shifty presence in their lives. Though Jean saved his life in combat, Le Gris’s allegiances seem to tilt more toward the louche local lord, Pierre (Affleck), who showers Le Gris with land and status once owed to Jean. A cosmic unfairness gives way to horrible violation when Marguerite tells Jean that Le Gris has barged his way into the de Carrouges castle and raped her while Jean was away. Jean, gallant and honorable, decides to fight to the death to defend her.
This version of events is convincing, but The Last Duel wants us to consider all potential facets of the story. In part two, we see things from Le Gris’s perspective, which turns de Carrouges into a pathetic pill, forever whining about not getting his due. Marguerite lusts after dashing party-boy squire Le Gris until—as he later tells it—they forcefully consummate their mutual attraction. Here is how an assaulter still may contextualize things; the rape charge is mere cover for the taboo want of an unsatisfied woman.
It’s only in the third section, focused on Marguerite, that the full breadth of the picture is realized. De Carrouges was a stormy, unpleasant man, a terrible lover and a cruel husband. Le Gris, certainly handsome, was an arrogant cad and then a rapist. Both men, so obsessed with their vanity and their entitlement, did grievous harm to Marguerite, which the film seeks to instructively recognize.
What’s strange about The Last Duel, and strangely effective, is that much of this is played lightly. Not the rape, a brutal and perhaps gratuitous scene that registers as awfully as it’s supposed to—twice. But a lot of the film is animated by comic hideousness: men behaving terribly and occasionally amusingly as they comfort themselves with titles and notions of chivalry. The film has the self-awareness to soberly acknowledge that precious little has changed in the nearly 800 years since, but it is also having fun with its litany of toxic male bullshit. Even the bloody, spurty violence feels like a happily grim lark.
Damon, Driver, and especially Affleck all swagger and clash around like they’re having the best of times, satirizing their own respective star profiles as they do a helpless lady the noble service of telling her she was right. Whether this humor is fitting for the ultimate meaning of the movie will no doubt be debated when The Last Duel is released. From one perhaps too forgiving angle, one could read the guys’ silliness as almost generous, making this male-centered movie about a woman’s plight aggressively obnoxious to serve as evidence. Let us be the fools, they seem to say to Marguerite, and to Comer, so that we may show things how they really are.