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The Last Duel

Director: Ridley Scott (UK, USA). Year of Release: 2021

Normandy, 1386. Two jousters prepare themselves for a duel to the death.

Flash back to: Limoges, 1370. Two armies are encamped on either side of a river. The beastly barbarian side (the English, natch) line up a group of hostages and threaten to slit their throats. On the other side, one of the French horseman starts a charge. The result is that the French army are massacred and lose Limoges. Brave reaction to murderous perfidy of impetuous foolishness? Well, this is one of the questions that The Last Duel tries to address from different angles.

The film concerns two French squires, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, old friends who are about to part their ways. Jean is a plodding, illiterate nobleman, due to inherit his father’s estate and with it a captaincy. Jacques is from a poorer family, but has used a short spell in the church to teach himself a series of languages. He is suave, good looking and an utter bastard.

While Jean feels forced to join the King’s army to pay off his rising debts, Jacques insinuates himself into the entourage of the king’s cousin Pierre, who runs things in Normandy. When he is not taking part in Pierre’s orgies, Jacques visits the homes of the local nobles and violently persuades them to pay off their debts to the crown.

This is how Jacques finds himself in possession of a prosperous piece of land, promised to Jean as part of his new wife’s dowry. Marguerite is beautiful, but her father spent part of the war fighting for the English, which ruined her chances of a wealthy husband – wealth and shame appear with sickening regularity in the film. Conflict over this land is just one of several rows between the two old friends which ultimately ends with Jacques raping Marguerite.

The story leading up to the rape – and Jean’s subsequent attempt to put his old friend on trial, are shown in three segments, each shown from the point of view of one of the main protagonists. Each segment is, as you might think, self-serving to the advantage of the story teller, but only the final one, narrated by Marguerite, is labelled by the film’s subtitles as being the truth.

Before seeing this film, I only saw negative reviews, and indeed there is plenty to criticize here. There is nothing new in the plot device, which was used with much more elegance in Rashomon, over 60 years ago. Sometimes the accents do swerve towards the French knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is also sad, if maybe dramatically unavoidable, that a film about women being denied a voice consists of 90% men talking and fighting with each other.

I’m also not so sure about Jacques’s description of the rape. He unapologetically recounts having sex with Marguerite without her consent, later explaining that of course she said “No”, because she is a lady. In Jacques’s version, he is not as violent as in the more shocking version which she later relates, but this is clearly not about “conflicting signals”.

If we were merely seeing Jacques’s perception of events, I could buy this. He is clearly a man who feels entitled to use women’s bodies as he will. But this is not supposed to be how he saw events, but the story he recounts to justify his actions. As he is facing trial, you’d expect him to be a little more circumspect – even in a feudal system, where women had no rights to speak of.

But, notwithstanding any of my misgivings, The Last Duel repeatedly reminds us of the imbalance in power. Under feudal mores, rape is viewed as a crime against the property of the husband, not anything that directly affected the woman concerned. Jean and Marguerite’s marital sex is nasty, brutal and short, and he keeps her locked alone in a tower to “protect her honour”. During the trial, Marguerite is told that if Jacques wins the case, she is to be burned at the stake for perjury.

The film tries its hardest to address the modern #MeToo movement, sometimes with subtlety, other times less so – there is a laboured metaphor about Jean’s favourite horse being fucked by a stallion, which he sees as a violation of his valuable property. And yet the film is perfectly clear about the hellish situation for women under feudalism, without ever making us think that this is a problem that we don’t have to worry about any more.

The Last Duel does have its flaws – it is a Ridley Scott film, after all. It is too long, and some of the repeated sequences really don’t tell us anything new (although this was much less of a continual worry than I was expecting). And, unlike Rashomon, there is little room for ambiguity. But in a film about a man raping a woman, is ambiguity really what you want to be looking for?

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