One of the high-profile film delays of 2020 was The Last Duel, the Ridley Scott historical epic starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Jodie Comer. This is the production that resulted in Damon and his family being locked down in Ireland in the spring. A trailer is now here for The Last Duel, and it looks like Fridging: The Movie, in which Jodie Comer’s character, Marguerite de Thibouville, suffers just so that her doink husband can have a big fight with his rapist ex-friend. BUT. Since this film was announced, I read Eric Jager’s 2004 book, also called The Last Duel. And then I contacted a former professor, a medievalist, about getting a copy of Jean Froissart’s contemporary 14th century accounting of the trial and the duel recounted by Jager, and now depicted on film by Scott. And I think there’s a sliver of a chance The Last Duel won’t be garbage. There is definitely a window here to connect these events to how we view sexual assault in society today, and a chance to make a damning critique of toxic masculinity and a society that simply refuses to just believe women.
The trailer is giving me hope we’re going to see that smart, unflinching reading of the story because Comer is front and center as Marguerite. The Last Duel is really her story, depicting the fallout after she is assaulted by Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver), a rival of her husband, Jean de Carrouges (portrayed by Damon in the film). Historical accounts of Carrouges paint him as a good soldier but a temperamental man who was some combination of bad at business and unlucky, who saw his lands and income reduced under feudalism after falling out with his overlord, Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck, resurrecting his truly lacking English accent and a hideous blonde wig). As Carrouges’ fortunes fell, Le Gris’ rose, and Le Gris was a particular favorite of Count Pierre, a relationship that favored Le Gris when Marguerite accused him of sexually assaulting her one day at her home. Count Pierre sided with Le Gris, and Carrouges went to King Charles VI seeking redress, but the evidence of the case was “flimsy”, since all they had was Marguerite’s word that she was assaulted by Le Gris.
Since men could not conceive of believing a woman in 1386, Carrouges asked for a trial by combat rather than go through another court proceeding against Le Gris. The Parlement de Paris agreed, because there was not—again, solely because no one considered Marguerite an apt witness—enough evidence to judge the case fairly. And so a judicial duel was declared, the last one France ever permitted, the idea being that “God will side with the righteous” and the person telling the truth would, therefore, win. Should Carrouges lose, not only would he be killed, but Marguerite would be burned at the stake, too, since a loss would mean she “perjured” herself. This sounds silly and superstitious, AND IT IS, but it was 1386. Religion was intimately entwined in daily life, and people genuinely believed that God would reveal the truth by favoring the honest and thus sending the guilty to their death(s).
That’s what makes Marguerite’s story so potent. It’s a cross-section of religious, courtly, and private life in a time when these spheres were virtually inseparable; it was a genuine “media” sensation, attracting thousands to the duel itself; and leaving aside all the historicity of having a medieval event so meticulously documented—the actual trial transcripts still survive!—it’s a brutal accounting of how little women were regarded as individuals, and how little attitudes toward sexual assault have really changed. Even in the era of “believe women” there are plenty of people who simply do not, and men like Bill Cosby can be released from jail over legal negotiations that many will see as a sign of innocence. And even today, accounts of the duel and Marguerite’s story will note that “we’ll never really know what happened” because it’s Marguerite’s word against Jacque Le Gris, for all time.
Even though Marguerite herself said at trial that making such an accusation was hardly a beneficial way to promote her family’s interests, and that she was insisting on her violation at great risk of HER OWN LIFE, people are STILL like, “Guess we’ll never know!” If The Last Duel can unpick this tangle of toxic masculinity, misogyny, and the ways in which society continues to fail survivors of sexual assault, it could be something special. Maybe it will just be a big sword fight movie reuniting Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as not only co-stars but co-screenwriters (notably, the script is also credited to Nicole Holofcener). But maybe we’ll get lucky, and The Last Duel will really be Jodie Comer’s movie, just as the story is really Marguerite’s. It’s a fascinating tale for a lot of reasons. Get even a couple of them right, and this will be good.