The Last Duel, by Albert W. Vogt III

What I am telling myself, and you by extension, is that I lacked the proper experience to see Halloween Kills.  I have not seen a single one of the Halloween films, not the original or any of the iterations between it and the most recent release.  Judging from the previews, it looked like a nightmarish train wreck of a film.  Luckily (perhaps?), there was another movie out this weekend that I was far more interested in seeing, The Last Duel.  Hopefully this will review will explain why it is an extremely problematic movie, historically and spiritually.  What I can say positively about it is that I am sure that, no matter its problems, it is still probably better than Halloween Kills.

The Last Duel sets the way-back machine for Paris, France, in the year 1386.  Two men, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), are preparing to duel one another before the French King, Charles VI (Alex Lawther).  The film then sets the way-back machine once more to 1370.  In order to not wear out my Rocky and Bullwinkle metaphor, just be prepared for a lot of use of the way-back machine.  You see, the film has three different perspectives on how we got to this point, what it calls the truth from the point of view of the two duelists and the woman they are fighting about, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer).  The first of these three cycles is Jean’s, followed by Jacque’s, and then what the film claims to be the most accurate, Marguerite’s.  I am going to talk about all three at once to spare some time.  At any rate, in 1370, Jean and Jacques are friends and comrades in arms.  They are fighting a battle side-by-side, though during it each would go on to claim that they saved the other’s life in the field.  They then swear their fidelity to Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), the king’s cousin, though Pierre favors Jacques over Jean.  Jean has his own issues, some of which relates to Pierre.  Jean’s first wife and child had died during a plague, and he then takes Marguerite as his new bride.  What he believes is part of her dowry, a strip of land from the estate of Marguerite’s father Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), is actually given to Jacques by Pierre.  The estate in question had been paid by Robert to cover debts he owed to Pierre.  This is only the beginning of the rift between Jean and Jacques.  While Jacques ingratiates himself more into the life of debauchery followed by the unfaithful Pierre as the count’s personal accountant, Jean next sees his father’s position in the region go to Jacques.  Things are chilly seemingly until Jean is invited to a party given by his friend Crespin (Marton Csokas).  Arriving there with Marguerite, Jean sees Jacques there as well.  Not wishing to spoil the festivities, they embrace and Jean introduces Marguerite.  Jacques is instantly charmed by her.  She is everything that Jean is not.  Unlike her husband, she is literate and can speak several languages.  For all his gruffness, she remains loyal to her husband, even in the face of Jacques’s growing ardor.  Eventually, it becomes too much for him to resist, and he contrives one day go to the Carrouges’ estate on a day when Marguerite happens to be there alone.  Tricking her into letting him in, he goes on to rape her, though he later protests that it was consensual.  This is quite the predicament for a woman in the fourteenth century, but more about this later.  Risking Jean’s ire, she relates what happens to her husband.  He is initially infuriated, but then proceeds with the plan to make the matter public, seeking redress for the crime.  Initially, the matter is submitted to Pierre, who attempts to dismiss it out of hand in deference to his friend Jacques.  Jean then appeals to Charles, and invokes an arcane French law that allowed for an aggrieved party to challenge their opponent in hand-to-hand combat.  The notion here is that, in cases where guilt is in question, the winner of the duel will be decided by God.  The victor will then be the innocent party.  There is an extra layer to this for Marguerite, however.  If Jean falls to Jacques, then she will also be found guilty of lying, not to mention her adultery, and would be summarily burned alive.  Adding to the tension is the fact that she is made to watch the affair on a specially made platform that would presumably be lit on fire if Jacques kills Jean.  Fortunately for her, Jean’s battle-tested skills allow him to triumph.  She is then left to raise the child who she conceived by . . . who knows?  It is either Jean or Jacques, though the film does not seem to want to make a call as to the identity of the father.  And I do mean that she is “left” because a closing crawl claims that Jean died a few years after the duel in the crusades.

When I was an undergrad at the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg, we were required to take a course on historiography.  Essentially, it is a class on how to do history.  One of the books we read during that semester was The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis.  It is the true story of a case of identity theft in sixteenth century France.  I could not stand this book, and I feel it is apropos in talking about The Last Duel, other than their shared country of origin.  Like the writers of the film, Davis had to use methods outside of the historical record in order to make sweeping assumptions about the events surrounding the case.  With the book, she could take the time to explain her methodology.  A movie does not have such a luxury.  In both cases, the principal person focused on is the heroine.  One thing the film gets correct is the nearly complete lack of agency of women at that point in history.  This is poignantly summarized by Jean’s mother, Nicole (Harriet Walter).  After the rape is made public and Jean does what he feels he is honor bound to do to protect his wife, Nicole confronts Marguerite about the danger that Jean must face.  Nicole tells of a time when she had been sexually assaulted, and how she had kept her mouth shut so as to not cause this kind of trouble.  And trouble it is.  By making the case known, Marguerite must not only endure the disapprobation of friends and family, but submit to courtroom questioning of her bedroom practices that would make even the most modern person blush.  She does it with a modest yet determined demeanor that is admirable.  The issue, though, is what actually happened.  I have no doubt as to the rape.  What I do not care for is the far too common practice of Hollywood of using the phrase “Based on True Events” as a sort of legalese to tell any version of the past they wish.  This duel did, in fact, happen.  Each side gave a testimony as to the supposed facts of the case, which is the reason for the three different versions presented in the film.  Each one paints the primary person as its hero.  In Jean’s he is much less insensitive, which is something I am guessing emerges from whatever source material was used.  Yet, the movie would lead you to believe that Marguerite was some kind of trailblazer, while the men are the true villains.  This is supported by the end crawl where it says that Marguerite never remarried.  The problem is, just like The Return of Martin Guerre, it is the result of speculation.  Such things typically do not hold up in court.

Another issue with The Last Duel is the way with which the Catholic Faith is presented.  To be fair, it is not all bad.  Yet, every time I see the medieval Church on film, I get the impression that Hollywood wants its audiences to believe that these are the things to which it still professes.  Shortly after Jacques assaults Marguerite, he goes to Confession.  Kudos for fulfilling the sacrament, anyway.  Yet, during it the priest suggests something about invoking clergy privilege in order to see his way through this mess.  I am not sure what it meant as I am not an expert in this field, but it seemed to suggest that members of the cloth could absolve such action.  Jacques, though, remained steadfast that he had done nothing wrong aside from the premarital sex.  This scene is baffling because if Jacques truly cared about his soul, why did we not see him confessing to any of the other numerous sins of the flesh we both saw and he is reputed to have committed?  There is also the absurd line of questioning during the investigations and trial as to the impossibility of a pregnancy resulting from a rape.  The Church as a body has known for a long time that, as a sex act, conception is possible from such an awful crime.  If you find a Catholic anywhere that says something silly like the body just “shuts down” during a rape, then you tell them that they are not following proper teaching.  As for the duel, many of the characters spend a lot of time saying that the victor will reveal God’s judgment in the matter.  They speak with the conviction of absolute truth.  Again, this is not remotely close to anything a priest or nun would tell you today.  Knowing God’s will is as personal of a relationship with your Creator as you can have, and the Church stops well short of such pronouncements these days, thankfully.  Still, I would be remiss if I did not praise the good Faith aspects.  There is a scene where you see Marguerite in the shadow of a statue of the Virgin Mary, subtly suggesting a link between the two.  Now there is a woman with agency, even if Marguerite’s is not entirely clear.  I also appreciated the way she is seen with a Rosary in hand during the contest between Jean and Jacques.  Finally, it does well to underscore the Church’s teachings on how sex between a husband and wife should be pleasurable for both parties, even if it does couch it in the most backwards of terms.

There is an interesting line in The Last Duel when Pierre and Jacques are conversing after the rape allegations first come to light and the latter is concerned about his reputation.  Pierre tells him that unless he is cleared, the common people will vilify him because their minds can only conceive of a world with heroes and villains.  What the film is interested in overall is truth.  However, that is precisely the thing of which it can never claim a complete grasp because it is something that happened nearly six and a half centuries ago.  Hence, it had to invent its own heroes and villains, no matter what the historical record says.  I find this to be problematic.

One thought on “The Last Duel, by Albert W. Vogt III

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s