By Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
If there’s anything that the #MeToo movement made clear, it is why women are reluctanct to come forward to accuse perpetrators of sexual abuse, especially when the perpetrators are powerful and well-known. Women are afraid, with justification, that they will not be believed and that they will be blamed rather than seen as victims. So imagine how much more difficult this would be in the 14th century, when rape was not considered a crime against a women, but was a crime against her husband or father, since she was seen as his property.
And yet, some women did seek justice against their abusers. Such was the case of Marguerite de Carrouges, who not only did not keep silent, but took her case all the way to the king of France. Marguerite was the second wife of Jean de Carrouges, a squire in the service of Pierre, Count of Alençon, during the Hundred Years’ War. He and another squire, Jacque le Gris, became close friends, with Carrouge saving le Gris’ life in battle, and le Gris serving as the godfather of Carrouge’s son. But they grew apart as Carrouge continued to serve as a warrior, while le Gris became a courtier and assistant to Pierre. Carrouge became jealous of what he felt was Pierre’s preferential treatment of le Gris, and sued Pierre twice over land and appointments he felt he should have gotten but that instead went to le Gris.
After Carrouge’s wife and son died of the plague, Carrouge married Marguerite, a beautiful young heiress he hoped would restore his fortunes. He even went so far as to introduce her to le Gris in an attempt to heal their rift. But le Gris convinced himself he was in love with her, and on a day when Marguerite was home alone, he went to her house, tricked his way in, and raped her, telling her not to tell anyone on pain of death. But Marguerite told her husband, and together they asked their friends and family to tell Marguerite’s story to everyone they knew. Carrouge took his case to Pierre, but Pierre acquitted le Gris and accused Marguerite of dreaming up the attack.
But Carrouge had a plan – he would appeal the case to the king and request a trial by combat. He, Marguerite, and le Gris gave testimony before the Parlement of Paris. Unable to reach a verdict, they gave permission for trial by combat, which was not merely a duel to settle issues of honor; in medieval times people believed that God was on the side of the winner, and therefore the winner’s version of events was the truth.
And whose version was the truth? In The Last Duel, we are shown three versions of events, as seen by each of the three main characters, with each segment labeled “The truth according to . . . .” The device allows us not just to see three versions of the same events, but more importantly, to see how the characters view themselves and the other characters.
Carrouges (Matt Damon) views himself as a faithful servant who is unfairly maligned, and sees le Gris and a betrayer and ladies’ man. Carrouges is sure that he’s a good husband to Marguerite, who he thinks is a happy, if meek, wife who adores him and thoroughly enjoys his lovemaking.
Le Gris (Adam Driver) views himself as someone who’s clawed his way up from the underclass by using his intelligence and social skills and who has made himself indispensable to Pierre (played hilariously by Ben Affleck as a jolly sybarite). In his version, Carrouges is a cantankerous, jealous, unreasonable wild man who neglects Marguerite, who naturally pines for le Gris. She welcomes him to her home, putting up only a token resistance because that is what she is expected to do, but then teasing him into taking her.
Marguerite(Jodie Comer) views herself as a woman who is neglected by a husband who is often away from home, leaving her the responsibility of running their estate while being criticised by her mother-in-law Nicole (Harriet Walter, in another of her acerbic dame roles) because she hasn’t had a child. But it’s almost worse when her husband is home, for while he isn’t mean, he is almost brutish, especially in bed, where he takes no care for her pleasure and doesn’t even realize that he should. When le Gris forces his way into her house, she tells him to leave, says “no” multiple times, fights him, screams, and weeps. It couldn’t be more clear that le Gris’ attack is rape. When she tells Carrouges what happened, he is upset – whether it’s because of what happened to her, or because it was le Gris who did it – but when he wants to go to bed and have sex with her, it’s almost like she’s being raped all over again.
Director Ridley Scott slyly lets you know which version he believes to be the truth at the beginning of Marguerite’s segment, when the words “The truth according to Marguerite de Carruges” appear, and then all the words fade except “the truth.” In interviews, he’s called people who think she might have lied “stupid.” And why would she lie, when the consequences were so grave? If Carruges loses the duel, she’ll be burned at the stake. “The truth does not matter,” Nicole says. “There is only the power of men.” But the truth matters desperately to Marguerite.
Comer is excellent as the three versions of Marguerite, playing each version slightly differently, but really delivering a wallop in Marguerite’s segment. Damon plays Carruges as stoic, volatile, and unlikeable (could he be suffering from PTSD?), a far cry from his usual nice guy characters. Affleck is wonderful, and Alex Lawthor plays King Charles VI as if he’s channeling King Joffrey from Game of Thrones, delighting in every splatter of blood. The fight scene is lengthy and brutal, as the big payoff should be. The script was co-written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, who (smartly) was hired to provide a female perspective, and was based on a book by medieval literature professor Eric Jager.
A word about historical accuracy: Ridley Scott is usually really good about getting historical details right in his films. I’m happy to report that all the chain mail is actual chain mail (albeit a plastic version invented by special effects house WETA for The Lord of the Rings) rather than gray sweaters coated with silver paint. However, there were two glaring mistakes I latched onto right away: Matt Damon’s mullet, and the half-faced helmets. Well, it turns out that the mullet might actually be historically accurate, but the helmets! No such helmet ever existed in any historical period. Think about it – the helmet’s supposed to protect you from having a lance shoved into your face or splinters from taking your eye out. Real jousting helmets were so all-encompassing that you could barely see out of them..
But forget about the mullet and the helmets, and let yourself get absorbed in this exploration of he-said, she-said politics. You’ll be amazed at how relevant it all is. One of the trial judges claims that “rape cannot result in a pregnancy – that’s science!” The line gets an uncomfortable laugh because that belief still echoes in these “modern” times. It’s appalling that some politicians and pastors still promote this erroneous belief. It’s appalling that women are still blamed and shamed for men’s violence. It’s appalling that it takes a group of women coming forward to bring enough pressure to bear for an abuser to have to resign office or get charged. It’s appalling that a single woman’s voice still isn’t enough, which is why Marguerite’s story is so amazing and resonates with modern audiences. If you are outraged or fascinated by sexual politics, if you want to see three strong performances, if you like historical costume dramas, or heck, if you just like the jousting matches at the renaissance faire, see this film.