By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/20/21 – Ridley Scott’s latest epic plays like an armor-clad reimagining of Rashomon crossed with a #MeToo-inflected remake of Straw Dogs. Inspired by author Eric Jager’s 2004 account of France’s last officially recognized judicial duel, in which God was trusted to pick the righteous winner, it’s effectively a medieval rape-revenge drama told in three chapters from three different perspectives, all leading up to one blood-soaked battle. The Last Duel is a sprawling, often ungainly movie, far too talky and at times quite redundant, messily mixing the medieval past with present-day politics. It opens the way a lot of Ridley Scott period epics do, on a gloomy day with two sides preparing for battle. We’re in Paris in the year 1386, and the combatants are the dashing squire Jacques Le Gris – that’s Adam Driver – and the sullen knight with a dreadful hairdo Sir Jean de Carrouges – that’s Matt Damon. Jean’s wife, Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, watches anxiously from a scaffold inside the walled enclave built for the brutal duel. Just as the two men are about to clash lances, the movie cuts away and rewinds several years to show what brought these three characters to this moment. Her husband, Jean (Matt Damon), and his opponent, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), are laced into chainmail and armor.
From here we spiral back to the Battle of Limoges, thrice revisiting events leading up to the titular duel, recounting “the truth according to” each teller. First up is Jean, who bravely saves Jacques’s life only to be betrayed when his erstwhile friend uses his influence with Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) to purloin Jean’s land and inheritance, and thence to “feloniously and carnally take my wife”, for which Jean demands dueling redress. Next comes Jacques’s version, in which Jean peevishly sues for land to which he has no right, and Marguerite, whose diminished dowry had aggrieved her dreary husband, offers only “the customary protests” to his advances (“because she is a lady”), which were “not against her will.”
Finally – and most engagingly – we have Marguerite’s account, an altogether more eye-opening version in which Jean and Jacques treat women as chattels, reduced by law and custom to the status of property. Scenes of equine mounting are heavy-handedly juxtaposed with Jean’s fruitless attempts to sire an heir (“I trust your ‘little death’ was a memorable and productive one,” he declares when spent), while Jacques’s narcissistic visions of flirtatious glances are revealed to be mere diplomatic smiles. This time it’s the malignancy of a world in which only men have power that is to the fore, presaging a showdown as absurd as it is brutal, leaving Marguerite in danger of being burned alive for the crime of daring to speak out.
The Last Duel is based on a true story that it tells no fewer than three times, each time from a different character’s perspective. The script, adapted from Eric Jager’s nonfiction book, emerged from a unique collaboration among three writers. Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the first two chapters focusing on the men, while Nicole Holofcenter wrote the third chapter centering on Marguerite. Unfortunately, The Last Duel instead gets bogged down in the mud and blood of its period milieu, with the brutal battle scenes forced on the audience three times with little additional insight. I found it helpful to dig into the source material which UCLA English Professor Eric Jager studied in depth in Paris before writing his 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France. Jager’s agent sold three successive options: first to Paramount for Martin Scorsese in 2006; then to Studio 8 for Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence in 2015; and then to Disney-Fox for Ridley Scott in 2019. Each of the three options resulted in a script, but the first two lapsed before shooting began. The third time, however, was the charm. “I’m a longtime Ridley Scott fan,” says Jager, who has just finished writing a book-length memoir that describes the wild ride from option to film. “Blade Runner was my first date with my wife, Peg, and I’m thrilled that Sir Ridley and his team have brought this epic to the big screen.”
I asked Professor Jager about some differences between the film and his original research in the documents housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Jager is inclined to believe that Marguerite de Carrouges was telling the truth about the rape. Jager, for his part, says that he “never would have embarked on writing this book if I had not believed Marguerite.” Le Gris’ lawyer, Jean Le Coq, arguably summarized the case best, noting in his journal “no one really knew the truth of the matter.” Born into a noble Norman family around the 1330s, Carrouges met Le Gris, a lower-born man who rose through the ranks by virtue of his own political savvy, while both were serving as vassals of Count Pierre. The pair enjoyed a close friendship that soured when the count showered lavish gifts of land and money on Le Gris, fomenting Carrouges’ jealousy. An intensely personal rivalry, exacerbated by a series of failed legal cases brought by Carrouges, emerged between the onetime friends.
In 1384, Carrouges and Marguerite encountered Le Gris at a mutual friend’s party. Seemingly resolving their differences, the men greeted each other and embraced, with Carrouges telling Marguerite to kiss Le Gris “as a sign of renewed peace and friendship,” according to Jager. The event marked the first meeting between Carrouges’ wife – described by a contemporary chronicler as “beautiful, good, sensible and modest” – and Le Gris. (At this point, the two men were in their late 50s, which places Damon at close to the right age for his role but Driver a good generation off the mark.)
Whether Carrouges and Le Gris actually ended their quarrel at this point is debatable. But Marguerite certainly made an impression on Le Gris, who likely still held a grudge against his litigious former friend: After running into the newly knighted Carrouges in January 1386, Le Gris sent a fellow courtier, Adam Louvel, to keep an eye on Marguerite, who’d been left behind with her mother-in-law while Carrouges traveled to Paris. As Jager explains, “With a motive, revenge against the knight, and a means, the seduction of his wife, all [Le Gris] needed now was an opportunity.”
Le Gris’ window arrived on January 18, when Marguerite happened to be left alone with just one maidservant. According to testimony later provided by Carrouges and Marguerite, she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Louvel. Recognizing the courtier, who claimed to have come to ask a favor and warm himself by the fire, she allowed him to enter the house, at which point he turned the conversation to Le Gris, saying, “The squire loves you passionately, he will do anything for you, and he greatly desires to speak to you.” Alarmed by the sudden shift in tone, Marguerite attempted to rebuke Louvel, only to turn around and see Le Gris, who’d snuck in through the unlocked door.
Le Gris quickly turned violent, forcing her upstairs and enlisting Louvel to help restrain her as she desperately fought back. (Here the film has Louvel disappear.) After the sexual assault, Le Gris told Marguerite, “Lady, if you tell anyone what has happened here, you will be dishonored. If your husband hears of it, he may kill you. Say nothing, and I will keep quiet, too.” In response, Marguerite said, “I will keep quiet. But not for as long as you need me to.” Tossing a sack of coins at the young woman, Le Gris taunted her, claiming that his friends would give him an airtight alibi. “I don’t want your money!” Marguerite replied. “I want justice! I will have justice!”
The majority of medieval rape victims lacked the means to seek justice. Per historian Kathryn Gravdal, a register of crimes recorded in four French hamlets between 1314 and 1399 lists just 12 rape or attempted rape cases, as “only virgins or high-status rape victims” – Marguerite – “actually had their day in court.” Those who did report their rapes found the odds “really stacked against them,” with the onus on the survivor to “make a big judicial issue of it as quickly as possible,” says historian Hannah Skoda, author of the 2012 book Medieval Violence. She adds, “If there’s any gap between the act and … making people aware [of it], that raises huge questions.”
Medieval law treated rape as a horrific crime on par with other capital offenses. But conceptions of rape varied widely, with some commentators arguing that women enjoyed being taken by force and others accusing survivors of falsely accusing men in order to trick them into marriage. (Rapists sometimes escaped punishment by marrying their victims.) The dominant belief that women had to enjoy sex in order to conceive further complicated matters, leaving those impregnated by their rapists on even shakier legal ground. Marguerite, who found herself pregnant soon after the attack, largely left this fact out of her account, either due to uncertainty over the child’s paternity – he may have been conceived before Carrouges left for Paris – or an awareness that making this claim would weaken her testimony in the eyes of the court. She gave birth to a son, Robert, shortly before Le Gris’ trial by combat.
Because rape was viewed less as an act of sexual violence than a property crime against the victim’s husband or guardian, rapists often avoided harsh penalties by paying a fine to the man in question. The burden of proof lay almost entirely on victims, who had to prove they’d resisted the rapist’s advances while recounting their testimony in precise detail. Even a small mistake, such as misstating the day the attack happened, could result in the case being thrown out and the victim being punished for perjury. “Marguerite tells her story, and she knows … that she needs to be extremely consistent, despite this absolutely horrific trauma that she’s just gone through,” says Skoda. “She has to relive it over and over again—and she gets it right.” Initially, Carrouges brought Marguerite’s case to Count Pierre. Given the count’s strong relationship with Le Gris and combative past with Carrouges, he was quick to dismiss the claim, even arguing that Marguerite “must have dreamed it.” Undeterred, Carrouges raised an appeal with the king.
The fate that awaited Marguerite if her husband’s attempts failed—being burned at the stake for bearing false witness—represented an extreme example of the potential repercussions faced by accusers. “If the case is not proven, then [the woman] doesn’t just get to walk away,” says Skoda. “She’s going to face some kind of penalty.” Instead of being executed, however, most women on the losing side of rape cases endured “custodial or financial [punishment], which in medieval terms is kind of the end of everything anyway,” according to Skoda.
French law stipulated that noblemen appealing their cause to the king could challenge the accused to a judicial duel, or trial by combat. Known as the “judgment of God,” these ordeals were thought to have a divinely ordained outcome, with the loser proving his guilt by the very act of defeat. Cases had to meet four requirements, including exhausting all other legal remedies and confirming that the crime had actually occurred.
After hearing both parties’ testimony, the Parlement of Paris agreed to authorize a duel – France’s first trial by combat for a rape case in more than 30 years. According to Jager, the court “may have feared taking sides and arousing even more controversy, deciding instead to grant the knight’s request, authorize a duel and leave the whole perplexing matter in the hands of God.”
Five contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles offer accounts of what happened when Le Gris and Carrouges met on December 29, 1386. Jean Froissart, writing after the duel, describes Marguerite praying as she watched the fight, adding, “I do not know, for I never spoke with her, whether she had not often regretted having gone so far with the matter that she and her husband were in such grave danger.”
Two likely eyewitnesses – the author of the Chronicle of the Monk of Saint-Denis and Le Coq—agree that Le Gris landed the first blow, piercing Carrouges’ thigh with his sword. In Le Coq’s words, his client “attacked his adversary very cruelly and did it on foot, although he would have had the advantage if he had done it on horseback.” By drawing blood, Le Gris prevented the king from halting the duel, as “once the scales had tipped in one fighter’s favor, no one could stop the fight without the appearance of partiality.”
A seasoned warrior with more fighting experience than Le Gris, Carrouges quickly rebounded from his injury, gaining the upper hand and pushing his opponent to the ground. Unable to rise due to the weight of his body armor, Le Gris resisted Carrouges’ calls to confess, declaring, “In the name of God, and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent of the crime.” Enraged, Carrouges delivered the death blow, perhaps by stabbing Le Gris’ exposed neck or thighs. Le Gris’ final moments appear to have been grisly even by the standards of the day: The monk of Saint-Denis, who served as Charles VI’s official historian, reported that Carrouges “killed his enemy with great difficulty because he was encased in armor.” In accordance with tradition, authorities dragged Le Gris’ body to the gallows and hung him as a final insult to his sullied reputation.
Though Scott’s film and its source text afford the fight the weighty title of the last duel, Le Gris’ trial by combat was far from the last duel to ever take place. Rather, it was the last judicial duel sanctioned by the Parlement of Paris – a decision possibly motivated by the decidedly unchivalrous nature of the event. Duels of honor, as well as judicial duels authorized by other governing bodies, continued to take place centuries after Carrouges’ triumph. As Matt Damon points out in an interview: “It’s an anti-chivalry movie in some sense because the great illusion of chivalry is that it was about … [protecting] the innocent female. And in fact, it was a code, a manner of behavior that denied women’s basic humanity.”