What we know of history has been written almost exclusively by men, especially when you go as far back as the Middle Ages. Every man who ever made a record of the past had his biases, and if you multiply that by the thousands of men who’ve had their say over time, you have to wonder how skewed every “true” history we’ve ever heard is, and consider the possibility that everything we know about our roots is a few degrees off from the way it really happened. What we know of history truly is history. The Last Duel purports to be her story, for a change.
In 1386, knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) dueled with squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The duel was the result of justice not being done by Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who was unjustly biased toward Le Gris. According to beliefs at the time, the outcome of the duel would also determine which version of the “truth” would go down in history, because God would, of course, only permit the better man to win. The stakes were pretty high, then — if Carrouges lost the battle, he would not only likely die, but his wife would also be burned at the stake since his loss would be “proof” that she had lied about Le Gris. The Last Duel unfolds in three chapters — the first from Jean de Carrouges’ perspective, the second from Jacques Le Gris’ point of view, and the final segment favoring Marguerite.Not so long ago, a clever concept for this story might have pitted the “he saids” against each other and excluded the “she said” section entirely. While historical epics often have female characters, they rarely have female perspectives. Even the stronger, more interesting women in big budget historical dramas are nearly always secondary to male protagonists, male antagonists, and male supporting characters. At worst, the women have nothing better to do than look fabulous in period costumes. At best, they say something interesting in the one or two good scenes they’re in, but are largely left out of the action. There are singular exceptions, like Elizabeth, but it’s rare to find a female lead in a true historical epic.
There’s a pretty good reason for this — most epic historical stories are driven men. Women didn’t fight in battles, women were rarely the driving force behind war or politics, women did not own property in many cultures and were, in fact, property themselves in most. It’s like asking why there aren’t more historical epics told from a horse’s point of view. (And hey, at least the horses got to see a lot of the action!
That doesn’t mean that women didn’t have stories of their own to tell, of course — just that they were rarely permitted to speak freely enough to tell them, and if they did, it’s less likely they were written down, and if they were, they were not given the same reverence as tales of duels and battles and political intrigue. Women’s roles in historical epics have trended toward getting more interesting as time goes on — often to the point of being anachronistic for the sake of including some contemporary “girl power” — but almost never to the point that their point of view actually supersedes the male lens through which they tend to be gawked at.Few working filmmakers have more gritty, large scale historical epics under their belt than Ridley Scott. Kingdom of Heaven, 1492, The Duellists, Robin Hood, and his Best Picture-winning Gladiator present a clear precedent for The Last Duel, which on the surface looks like very familiar terrain for a filmmaker whose films tend to have an elegantly masculine sheen — in terms of dude bro cinema, he’s the respectable grandfather to Michael Bay’s bratty kid brother. Scott has actually done quite a lot with women in his films — speaking to sexual politics in Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane, creating iconic women in Blade Runner, not to mention centering Alien on one of the most beloved action heroines of all time — but it’s nearly always in a film that strongly considers and caters to the male moviegoer. (Thelma and Louise being a notable exception, and an important precursor to observe in response to this film.)
The Last Duel is something of a Trojan horse, on the other hand. It witnesses and then roundly rejects the male point of view on this tale. Two knights are involved in a years-long dispute over coin, land, honor, loyalty, and eventually the rape of one woman; most versions of this tale would focus on one or both of their points of view as the primary source of drama. The Last Duel does that, too, but only so it can then roll its eyes at how this story of a woman’s rape could ever be framed in such a fashion. It is a film exasperated with countless tales of women being violated, bartered for, or fought over that all center men in their retelling, endless stories of female suffering told by and for men first and foremost.
In the end, there’s no mistaking whose story this is or what it’s trying to say about “chivalry” — but the film’s clever conceit has us first witness two takes on this tale that easily could have been greenlit in years past, and definitely would have been directed by none other than Ridley Scott. The first is stiff and staid, the perspective of the loyal but humorless husband (Matt Damon) who would be the hero in most versions of this tale. The second is wry and playful and a bit too pleased with itself, just like the randy right hand of the Count who mistakes his lust for a rival’s wife with “true love.” These segments of the film are watchable but rarely riveting — and that’s by design, because this tale only really clicks when we see it through the wronged wife’s eyes (wonderfully conveyed in Jodie Comer’s performance). The Last Duel boasts epic sweep and breathtaking production design, just as we expect from a Ridley Scott film — and it delivers on that duel as promised in the title, too. It’s a brutal and gruesome affair that gives any scene of combat on Game of Thrones a run for its money. But it’s all in service of a story that finally prioritizes the woman’s perspective in a story of her violation, rather than the men who are fighting over her.
And it’s not just one woman — the deftest touch is the way Scott’s camera picks up significant looks from a number of supporting female characters at various moments. Many of these women don’t speak, but Scott lets us know exactly how they’re feeling — in reaction shots that would never make it into a typical male-centric epic. There’s a whole extra layer of story here in just these looks, forcing us to consider all the perspectives on events like this we’ve never heard. Every one of these women has a story like this to tell, yet they’re so rarely told.