Along with The Duellists and Gladiator, The Last Duel forms a kind of rough trilogy in Ridley Scott’s body of work – three films, all about combat, released about thirty years apart. As a result, it feels like a litmus test for where Scott’s career is now, and where it might progress in the future, while also reflecting the impact of the global pandemic in the way it reimagines its source material – the last officially recognised trial by combat in medieval France. This took place on December 29, 1836, between the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to “settle” the question of whether Le Gris had raped Carrouges’ wife, Margueritte de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). This duel was officiated by King Charles VII (Alex Lawther) along with his brother, the Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck).
Scott opens with the spectacle of this duel, which captures a dialectic that has become peculiar to our experiences of the pandemic – especially in Sydney, where it was the first film I saw after three months of lockdown. On the one hand, the crowd scenes are especially brutal and violent here – a mass of onlookers cheering on the blood spectacle – and this continues beyond the prologue into the film proper. While there are many battle scenes, Scott seems less interested in gore than in the visceral intensity of crowds themselves. In a post-lockdown world, there’s something inherently violent about so many people in a confined area, particularly when accompanied by the most thunderous horsebound sequences in Scott’s career. At the same time, however, the duel situates us in an intense one-on-one encounter in which two characters are forced to invade each other’s personal space to the death, as they try to unseat each other from their horses and then trample or dispose of them with swords.
Between these two experiences, Scott evokes a world that oscillates between precarious crowds and precarious individual exchanges. Yet The Last Duel goes further than this, evoking the ways in which the pandemic has produced more feudal structures of feeling – or revealed a feudalism lurking beneath capitalism in an era of widespread property precarity. During the pandemic, we have become acutely aware of our relationship to property, by virtue of spending so much times in the spaces that we own and rent. At the same time, the limits to international travel have created a world of city-states instead of countries – a world in which citizens of the same country often seem to be experiencing totally different forms of governance. Scott’s film captures how it feels to live in this new spatial scheme, while using this newfound sense of precarity to disclose a deeper truth – that the very idea of private property is centred on the idea of women’s bodies as the most precious and private property.
This allegory evolves across three acts, each of which depicts the rape of Marguerite from a different perspective, although this isn’t exactly a classic Rashomon structure, for reasons that become clear when we arrive at Marguerite’s act. We start with Carrouges, who lives within Pierre’s realm, and whose inability to pay rent shapes the entire trajectory of the film. In these early scenes, Carrouges requests rent reduction, due to the Black Plague, which has decimated half his workforce. Even though Carrouges is one of the most valiant soldiers in the region, and has proven his loyalty to the crown many times, Pierre refuses to grant his request, demanding full rent in the midst of the pandemic – a familiar experience to many in the present. To pay the rent, Carrouges has to resort to more precarious work, which means even more military campaigns, most of which revolve around the Norman Conquest of Britain.
Paying the rent doesn’t just mean physical sacrifices, but ideological sacrifices. Carrouges decides to marry Marguerite, the daughter of his former enemy, for her dowry, but even a portion of this new estate is claimed by Pierre as soon as Carrouges inherits it. Around the same time, Carrouges’ father dies, presumably due to the plague, which removes his last tendentious hold on his family land. Pierre effectively refuses to renew the lease on the Carrouges castle, which he hands over to Le Gris, while even Carrouges’ mother, Nicole du Buchard (Harriet Walter) is unsympathetic. Within the film’s allegory, she’s like an entitled Boomer, shocked that her son can’t maintain the castle his father captained, even though he has a post-plague world to contend with. Worse still, Pierre can’t produce an heir, no matter how hard he tries with Marguerite, which makes his hold on property even more precarious.
Up to this point, then, The Last Duel uses feudal France as a way of commenting upon the property precarity of the present. This culminates when Carrouges returns from his most brutal stint in Britain yet. He’s coughing, and may have caught the plague, but he has to travel to Paris as soon as he returns, to negotiate a financial deal with the Treasurer. At this moment of peak property precarity, the film shifts gears, as Carrouges comes home from Paris to find Marguerite claiming that Le Gris has raped her in his absence. All Carrouges’ anxiety about land crystallises around this claim, since it’s clear that he sees Le Gris’ actions as an assault first and foremost upon his land. Since Le Gris was granted the Carrouges castle, he has taken Marguerite as part of his property portfolio now – at least that’s how Carrouges perceives it.
At this point, the film changes tack somewhat. We move from a feudal drama that eerily pre-empts the present to a more consciously anachronistic folding of the present back into the past. More specifically, we start to see contemporary attitudes towards gender, assault and consent appear in the narrative, which gradually shifts into the present tense, while mediating it through these feudal structures of feeling. The next step in this process occurs with the shift to Le Gris’ version of the story, which doesn’t change our perspective so much as amplify it.
In particular, this second act removes any residual sense of the nobility of property. In one of the first scenes, Le Gris and Pierre spend a debauched and depraved night together, before Pierre reveals his own insolvency as they awake, bleary-eyed, on the battlements. There’s a much clearer sense, now, of Le Gris as a stand-over man, terrorising tenants into selling their property at a reduced rate, or simply giving it up, when they can’t afford to pay their rent. There’s also a much clearer sense of Pierre as a petty bureaucrat, relying on his underlings to do his work, and retreating behind a series of platitudes whenever Carrouges challenges him.
Once again, though, Le Gris’ rape of Marguerite is linked to his obsession with property. He gets the idea when Carrouges returns from Britain, having been knighted, and demands that Le Gris, a squire, addresses him by his proper title of “Sir.” In that moment, Carrouges makes it clear to Le Gris that he has a title that transcends property and, conversely, that Le Gris’ so-called nobility simply consists in indolently acquiring property. To reassert the value and valor of property, Le Gris waits until Marguerite is alone at the castle, forces his way in, chases her upstairs, and rapes her in her bedroom, as if to reassert the hubris of property. To some extent, it works, since Marguerite now falls pregnant, meaning that Le Gris has insinuated himself into her bedroom, the heart of the property, in a manner that Carrouges never could. As a result, the rape scene is very quick – less about pleasure, in some ways, than the sheer fact of violation itself, as functional and as methodical as Le Gris’ other property acquisitions.
This scene concludes Le Gris’ version of events, cementing the link between rape and property that we saw in Carrouges’ version. However, a different drama starts to emerge – the question of whether Le Gris did in fact rape Marguerite. Even five years ago, a Hollywood film might have gone a different way here, and used the “question” of consent to craft a parable about the irreducible subjectivity of perception itself. You can see the traces of that older kind of film throughout The Lost Duel, which is strewn with possible “clues” as to why Marguerite might have lied. Together, they make a kind of genre inventory of all the ways that rape can be justified by Hollywood good taste – Marguerite feels neglected by her husband, hated by her mother-in-law, isolated in her castle. She also yearns for an intellectual equal (Carrouges can’t read, Le Gris is well read) and is actually attracted to Le Gris, while she’s exhausted by her inability to experience sexual pleasure (let alone conceive) on the rare occasions when Carrouges deigns to return from his tours of duty. In one scene, she looks at a pair of mating horses with such longing that it seems a foregone conclusion that she invited Le Gris’ actions.
On top of these familiar motifs, Scott, and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, provide us with two scenes that also initially suggest a more conventional route. In the first of these, Le Gris sees Marguerite coming into his bedroom at night in a simpering guise, suggesting that she has seduced him and that they have framed Carrouges together. However, it turns out to be a dream. Scott and Holofcener keep up this feint in Le Gris’ version of the rape scene, which recalls Straw Dogs in the way that Marguerite half-resists and half-acquiesces, both fleeing and inviting Le Gris up to her bedroom, and only making what appears to be a token gesture of resistance before giving up to his advances. This is the most mercurial scene in the film and, again, suggests that there may be more to this narrative that meets the eye – that the assault, in true Hollywood fashion, is going to be a kind of case study in subjective perception.
Strange as it sounds, then, the twist of The Last Duel is that everything happened precisely as Marguerite said it did. No sooner have we finished “The truth according to Jacques Le Gris” than we shift to “The truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges,” except that this time around, Scott fades everything but “the truth,” indicating that what we are about to see is not merely Marguerite’s perspective, but the actual objective truth. This is quite different to the Rashomon structure, which features three subjective stories, and then a framing device to determine what objectively happened. In this case, not only is one of those stories itself true, but it turns out to be the woman’s story, calling into question the types of framing devices, and patriarchal structures, that determine the criterion of objectivity to begin with.
In some ways, we have come a long way from the opening act, which seemed to promise a film that was primarily preoccupied with the precarity of owning or acquiring property. But the brilliance of The Last Duel is to suggest that these two aspects of the narrative are part of the same feudal outlook. By making our hold on property more precarious, the film suggests, the pandemic has raised fresh anxieties about the jurisdiction of the female body as the basis of private property. Among other things, Scott and Holfocener’s vision explains why the precarity of the pandemic has helped to galvanise right-wing consensus around the types of extreme bodily invasion that we see with Texas’ regressive abortion laws. In the long history of COVID envisaged by the film, reversing Roe v. Wade may well be one of the key casualties.
The Last Duel thus converges its two throughlines into a quite compelling thesis – that the pandemic has created a new precarity around private property, and that this in turn has provoked deep anxieties about women as property. Since Marguerite’s rape is a symptom of this situation, Carrouges doesn’t respond in an interpersonal or empathetic way, but by doing everything he can to reiterate her as his property, although he’s blind to his actions in this respect. While he remembers having comforted and protected Marguerite, her story shows a much bleaker vision of his response to finding out about the rape. First, he holds her up by the neck, and almost strangles her, while demanding if she’s telling the truth. Then, he screams out “can this man do nothing but evil to me?” Finally, he insists they have sex, right then and there, because he cannot permit Le Gris “to have been the last man to know you.”
It’s not just Carrouges who believes the only way to resolve the situation is to reinstate Marguerite as his property. Nicole, Carrouges mother, reveals that she was also raped, but that there’s no point in bringing it up, since “the common mind has no taste for this kind of nuances.” Instead, she advises that Nicole “deny, deny, deny,” while Marguerite’s best friend also shuns her, incapable of believing that Marguerite could have genuinely resisted the advances of a man she already found attractive. And a local clergyman, who’s well versed in the law, calmly informs Carrouges that his only route is to reacquire Marguerite, since “formally, this is not a crime against her – rape is not a crime against a woman, it is a property crime against a woman.” All these factors, and Carrouges’ own profound anxieties about property, lead him to see justice more in terms of redistribution or reacquisition of his wife.
Even with that more modest conception of justice, Carrouges could still choose to take the case to a regular trial, as Marguerite desires. Instead, he unilaterally decides to request a trial by combat, which was already an antiquated institution by this point in medieval France. So deep is Carrouges’ anxiety about property that he can only mark his ownership of his wife in the most dramatic way. In effect, he’s trying to conjure up the objective patriarchal structure that provides truth in Rashomon, since it’s inconceivable that Marguerite could provide this truth purely through her own testimony. Staging a trial by combat means allowing God to decide the victory, which also means that Carrouges’ property will be divinely ordained if he comes away victorious. Yet this duel is also fruit of the poisoned tree of private property itself, which perhaps explains why Scott has so little interest in the etiquette, protocol or procedure of the duel – a very marked contrast to the intricate mechanics of The Duellists and Gladiator.
By this point, The Last Duel feels set purely in the present – in a present where the feudal conditions of the pandemic have only enhanced the feudal response that ensues whenever a woman raises an allegation of assault. All the genre c(l)ues to Marguerite’s “subjective” perception now recur as formal defences of Le Gris in the pre-duel trial – she was lonely, she was sexually frustrated, she longed for her intellectual equal, she was attracted to him. The defence condenses all these tropes into one final assertion – that rape cannot cause a pregnancy, because a woman can’t conceive a child with orgasm, and orgasm is needed for pregnancy. By this logic, Marguerite’s rape was the only satisfying sex she has had in the last five years. While this sounds pretty extreme from a contemporary perspective, it’s not really that different from the rhetoric driving Texas’ abortion reforms, which fundamentally denies that rape can lead to pregnancy, or at least denies this possibility as a genuine lived reality.
This feudal vision of an assault trial is not new in itself – we seem to hear all the time about how the supposed “trial by media” of alleged assaults represents a regression to a pre-democratic and pre-capitalist state of mind. What is new is the way that Scott and Holofcener invert this trope of the trial by media to envisage it as benefiting the powerful, in the same way that “cancel culture” was a term invented by the powerful to avoid conventional accountability. To augment the film’s thesis, then, The Last Duel envisages a world where property has taken on a more feudal precarity, prompting a feudal anxiety about woman as property, which in turn prompts a feudal recourse to spectacle in place of satisfactory justice.
Here, as in the present, that spectacle inevitably benefits those who have the resources to combat it – those with property, rather than those relegated to the status of property. Midway through the trial, Marguerite learns that the stakes are far higher for her than for either Le Gris or Carrouges. The worst fate for the two men is a relatively quick death by duel – but if Carrouges loses, Marguerite will be stripped, shorn, lashed and buried alive. Whatever the outcome, the duel is basically a way of punishing Marguerite for having made the accusation in the first place, since even if Carrouges wins it simply reiterates her as property.
For all those reasons, this is Scott’s most pessimistic film about masculinity. In fact, The Last Duel suggests a finitude to traditional masculinity and a need to move beyond the ways it computes and perceives the world. Even on the cusp of death, De Gris is unwilling, or perhaps unable, to acknowledge the rape. In the climactic scene, Carrouges holds a dagger at his mouth and roars at him to confess, but even this isn’t enough to bring the words forth. This is this most traumatic moment for Marguerite – realising that De Gris can never recognise what he did, even when he has nothing left to lose. Masculinity here is a form of oblivion, while De Gris is a cognate and a corrective to Driver’s role in Marriage Story, where his character insisted on dominating his wife’s will for years but was so incapable of conceiving why she might want to divorce him that the only way he could process it was as victimhood.
More generally, all three of the actors here have become associated with a certain kind of toxic masculinity in Hollywood, even or especially as they have tried to mediate it by professing the kind of sensitive victimhood that Marriage Story unwittingly dramatized. Affleck is the most obvious, and his character here verges the most on caricature. But Damon also falls into this category, given his knowledge of the Harvey Weinstein case, and his now infamous assertion that it took having daughters of his own to recognise that assault was wrong. Driver doesn’t have the same kind of profile off screen as these two, but he’s tended towards roles that recall the moody, self-pitying, self-arrogated victimhood of New Hollywood – the same niche that an actor like Elliott Gould or Donald Sutherland filled in the 70s, culminating, once again, with Marriage Story. With these three actors as leads, there’s a kind of reckoning, here, with the finitude of masculinity as Hollywood traditionally depicts it.
While Carrouges does win, then, it’s a Pyrrhic victory for Marguerite, who just experiences a different kind of grief as the Parisian crowd closes in to congratulate him on having reacquired his property. From there, Scott and Holofcener cut to an ambivalent final scene – Marguerite reclining on a grassy field, watching her baby boy running towards her, while a group of figures stand with a horse in the very far distance. In a series of end titles, we learn that Carrouges died in battle soon after the duel and that Marguerite (unsurprisingly) chose not to marry again, remaining a widow for the next thirty years. But it’s unclear whether Carrouges has died in this final scene, or whether he’s one of the blurry figures in the distance.
That places Marguerite herself in a provisional and hypothetical space. It’s possible that Carrouges has died, and the property now belongs to her, but it’s also possible that she is simply part of a mise-en-scene that he’s watching from a distance. Similarly, it’s possible, if Carrouges has died, that we’re watching a new kind of relationship between mother and son, but it’s also possible, again, that Carrouges is supervising it all from a distance. Put bluntly, it’s unclear whether Marguerite now owns the property, or is simply a component of the property – and that ambivalence is encapsulated in the odd smile and offbeat complacency that crosses her face. As the last duel, the battle between Carrouges and De Gris represented a critical cusp in the shift between feudalism and capitalism. In these final moments, Scott brings that cusp into our own time, asking us to imagine an unimaginable space between the feudal residuum of our own capitalism present, and something beyond capitalism altogether.