Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’

Oct 15, 2021, 11:51 AM

The prospect of a big-budget movie about an historical event in 14th century France, with movie stars no less, piqued the interest of many a Francophile, including myself. Not only was it going to be directed by big-time director Ridley Scott, it starred two big-time actors, Matt Damon and Adam Driver and an up-and-coming actress Jodie Comer. Ooh-la-la!

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The actual film proves to be a little less than I was hoping for, but I’m still glad Scott used his clout to get “The Last Duel” made.

After all, how often do we get to see a film open with a deadly serious medieval joust? It’s December 29, 1386. Two knights in full armor are cradling their heavy lances and bearing down on each other at a full gallop.

Just as first contact is made between the two warriors, the movie screeches to a halt, the title appears on the screen, and the story backpedals 16 years.

In classic movie tradition, the film proceeds to give us the lengthy backstory of how this famous duel came to be, before eventually returning us to the duel for a climactic finale. In actuality, it’s less straight-forward than that. What “The Last Duel” really delivers is three backstories, one by each knight and one by the woman whose accusation brought the duel about.

It’s a tricky structure designed to be like “Rashomon” in medieval France, made even more intriguing by the decision to have each version written by a different person. Damon writes his character’s version, Ben Affleck writes from his rival’s point of view, and writer/director Nicole Holofcener was drafted to write the woman’s version. It’s a clever but risky gambit that’s only partially successful.

The agreed-upon facts gleaned from all three accounts are these. Sir Jean de Carrouges and Sir Jacques Le Gris were longtime friends, having first met fighting the English on the battlefields of Limoges in 1370. Over the years, de Carrouges returned to run his family properties, married Marguerite, the daughter of a traitor who had sided with the English, in exchange for a large dowry of property. Meanwhile, Le Gris became a confidant of Count Pierre d’Alencon who demanded harsher and hasher taxes from property owners like de Carrouges. A simmering feud between the former friends (over some property that had been promised de Carrouges as part of a dowry but ended up in Le Gris’ hands by dint of Count Pierre’s interference) burst into the public realm when Marguerite accused Le Gris of rape. After a series of court proceedings resolved nothing, it was agreed that a jousting duel to the death between the two men was the only way to determine the truth. This sets up the dramatic finale, with a very dark twist. If de Carrouges loses, his wife is assumed to have lied and will be burned at the stake.

The three-perspectives approach has one glaring weakness – that we have to go over the same ground three times. The best way to overcome this weakness is to make sure the three versions are very different. Ideally, each story forces us to reconsider everything we’d heard from the other two. Unfortunately, the two men’s versions (de Carrouges first, then Le Gris) are so similar for so much of the time, that it feels more repetitive than revelatory. By the time we get to Marguerite’s version, which truly does upend her husband’s version and to a lesser extent Le Gris,’ we’re worn down by so much repetition in this two-and-a-half hour movie. Nonetheless, it’s Marguerite’s take that brings true focus to the film’s otherwise wandering thematics.

Oddly, once all three sides are heard, it’s pretty clear neither man is worth rooting for. If it wasn’t for the consequences on poor Marguerite, justice might have been best served if both men perished in this last duel.

Ultimately, the film is a proto-feminist take on the Middle Ages. It’s no surprise that women were treated horribly in medieval France, but it’s always worth highlighting actual women who choose to fight the outrages of the paternalistic world they inhabited, IF that is indeed what Marguerite did. This take on her feels a little too conveniently anachronistic to be entirely convincing, but this is where I’ll let the historians take over.

Check out more of Tom Tangney’s movie reviews here.

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Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’