SIR RIDLEY SCOTT may have created two seminal works of science fiction in “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982), but he has spent much of his career looking to the past for inspiration. His debut film “The Duellists” (1977) was set during the Napoleonic wars; he has depicted historical figures such as Christopher Columbus in “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992) as well as legends including Robin Hood. “Gladiator” (2000) single-handedly revived the moribund genre of the swords-and-sandals movie, though “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014) was less successful, both critically and commercially, in repeating the trick for the biblical epic.
These history films have focused on the feats of great men. Noblewomen and queens make an occasional appearance, but mostly as interlocutors; their own stories have not been told in any meaningful way. That makes “The Last Duel”, Sir Ridley’s latest film, which had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, something of a departure. Set in 14th-century France, the film is based on the true tale of the last trial by combat, precipitated by Marguerite de Thibouville’s claim that she has been raped by Jacques Le Gris, her husband’s friend. (Jodie Comer, pictured, stars as Marguerite, with Matt Damon playing her husband Jean de Carrouges, and Adam Driver taking on the role of Le Gris.)
A trio of screenwriters—Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck and Mr Damon—have adapted a non-fiction book of the same name by Eric Jager, a specialist in medieval literature. The film-makers take the unusual approach of recounting the events leading up to the duel three times, from three different perspectives, with each screenwriter responsible for an individual chapter. It is an approach reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Rashomon” (1950), but whereas for Kurosawa the truth was ultimately unknowable, in “The Last Duel” the truth exists, but has been obscured and silenced.
Marguerite is really three different characters in the film. In the first chapter, told from her husband’s perspective, she is a beautiful young woman, saved from the ignominy of her father’s past treachery by marriage. His romance is clumsy and she is only seen fleetingly in between more familiar action scenes. For Le Gris, she is the enigmatic but obviously dissatisfied wife of his best friend, a Guinevere to his Launcelot. In his view, she succumbs to his advances with no more than a decorous display of reluctance, or “the customary objections” for a lady of her standing. The first two chapters—and the first two versions of Marguerite—contradict each other, especially in the quarrel between de Carrouges and Le Gris. Yet Marguerite remains a subordinate and relatively silent figure, inspiring love and lust, then enmity and revenge.
It is the third act which finally gives Marguerite a voice. Through her eyes the viewer sees a new appraisal of the men that strips away their own self-serving narratives. Her stodgy husband, rather than being the action hero of his own dreams, is an unimaginative, petty and rather fragile man. Likewise Le Gris is such a narcissist that he doesn’t recognise the violence of his behaviour. He thinks it was a “seduction”, an act of courtly love rather than one of brutality.
Is “The Last Duel” a feminist film, more in keeping with Sir Ridley’s “Thelma & Louise” (1991) than the more generically similar “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)? Detractors might ask why two-thirds of it focuses on the men’s perspective rather than Marguerite’s, and why the complicated friendship between de Carrouges and Le Gris is the story’s main driving force, rather than Marguerite’s harrowing experience. These are reasonable observations: the film spends much of its 150-minute running time in the mud and blood of the medieval battlefield and judicial duel, with thundering horses and shattering lances galore.
But all that is undermined in Marguerite’s chapter. She castigates the men’s view of their own chivalry and masculinity and says that, for all their talk of honour, they are fundamentally dishonest. She argues that such dishonesty and injustice is written into society and the law itself. And she speaks out even though, if de Carrouges loses the duel, she will be burned at the stake, her accusation considered a lie. For the first time in one of Sir Ridley’s history films, the sidelining of a female character makes a powerful point.