The Last Duel

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

It was an unspeakable act. If it happened.

There’s some question about that, it seems. Marguerite de Carrouges—wife of one of 14th-century France’s most nettlesome knights, Jean de Carrouges—says that she was raped. Jacques Le Gris barged in when she was alone in her castle, sexually assaulted her and threatened her to keep quiet: After all, Marguerite’s loving husband would kill her if he knew.

Jacques insists that the attack never happened. Perhaps she merely dreamed that it happened. Or perhaps it’s yet another way for Jean—once one of Jacque’s closest friends and now his bitter enemy—to besmirch his name.

It’s a tragic case of he said, she said, in an age before phone records and DNA tests; before, in fact, women had any real legal rights at all.

But there was, of course, a third party who saw what happened: God Himself. And in medieval France, it was still conceivable to ask Him to court—not just as an expert witness, but as the case’s all-powerful Judge.

It was called trial by combat, and by 1386 it was almost forgotten. Already, medieval nations preferred to settle their differences in court, by judge and jury. But Jean knew he and his wife wouldn’t get a fair shake in court in the absence of hard evidence, so only one path remained to them: He challenged Jacques to a fight to the death, with Jean defending the honor of his wife, Jacques the honor of his name. Whoever won would be judged innocent, it was thought, by the Lord Himself. Whoever lost was in the wrong, and so he got what was coming to him.

It was a simple, straightforward way to determine guilt and innocence, with the sentence carried out simultaneously with the verdict. Soon, all of France was anticipating the lethal showdown, and the king himself was practically insane with glee.

But Marguerite knows that God doesn’t always defend the innocent. She knows too many women who’ve been wronged by very guilty men. If Jean loses, she does too—burned at the stake for her alleged lie.

The saga of Last Duel is told in three different chapters by three different tellers: Jean, Jacques and Marguerite herself. But there can be only one ending. In this trial, guilt and innocence don’t just hang in the balance: Life and death twist in the wind.

Positive Elements

Both Jean and Jacques exhibit a tiny handful of merits. The two men saved each other’s lives during a critical battle, and both seem to care about threatened civilians during military campaigns. They seem to genuinely like each other before their relationship goes south.

But Marguerite’s by far the most honorable person we meet here. Married to Jean in a political deal, Marguerite tries to make the best of it—serving Jean as a dutiful wife (and as a willing bed partner in Jean’s desperate quest to sire an heir). And when her husband goes off to war, she proves to be a much better steward of the Carrouges estate than Jean himself is: Overdue debts are collected; fields are plowed; servants and tenants feel newly appreciated.

When Marguerite brings charges against Jacques, she does so at considerable risk. Even if she was raped, the court considers it a sin against Jean and his “property,” not Marguerite herself. Most women sexually assaulted back then tended to keep quiet about it, the movie suggests, preferring to avoid the pain and shame of disclosure. But Marguerite refuses to bow to the pressure and whispers and cultural shame, even risking her life to stand by her story. (Her saga is intended to reflect similar struggles that happen today, even in our more “enlightened” age.)

The only time when she weakens in her resolve is when she becomes a mother—which speaks to her honor from a different direction. “A child needs his mother more than a mother needs to be right,” she says.

Spiritual Elements

The titular event in The Last Duel is predicated on God and His perfect justice. Jean frequently declares that he will win the case and his duel because God is, quite literally, on his side. The loser, meanwhile, is thought to not just lose his life, but his soul as well. To lose the duel without recanting sentences the combatant’s immortal self to eternal damnation, it’s believed. At the opening of the duel, a crier warns that observers are forbidden from aiding either combatant via weapons or spells or “any other things forbidden by the Holy God” and the Catholic Church.

Naturally, this age was a more religious one than we live in now (at least superficially), and we hear many references to God and faith outside the movie’s central tension, too.

In Jean’s and Marguerite’s wedding ceremony, a priest kisses Jean lightly (perhaps symbolic of God’s blessing the marriage) before Jean kisses his bride. Priests seem to bless the couple’s bed, as well. Scenes in Paris depict the construction of Notre Dame. Marguerite wears a necklace adorned with a cross.

When Jacques ogles Marguerite from afar, someone mentions that it’s a sin to covet another man’s wife. “No less sinful than her coveting me,” Jacques responds. We learn that Jacques once studied to be a priest, but he found that the requirements (particularly the celibacy part) too onerous.

When Jean brings charges against Jacques, the latter’s lawyer suggests using Jacque’s training to take the matter to a clerical court, rather than a traditional civil one. The lawyer suggests that the clergy is filled with sexual sinners and deviants, so he’d likely be granted a more lenient hearing.

Which brings us to our next content category.

Sexual Content

The age’s reputed piety doesn’t make a dent in the debauchery we see here. Even before Marguerite’s accusations, Jacques was a notorious ladies’ man at court, which helped make Jacques a favorite in the court of his liege lord, Count Pierre d’Alencon. The two spend a lot of bonding time participating in various orgies, two of which we see.

In one, Jacques comes to Pierre’s bed chamber. When Pierre opens the door, we see four naked women writhing around and making out with each other in his bed (we see them all fully nude, albeit from a distance). Pierre climbs back on the bed and invites the women to return him to a state of arousal—inviting Jacques to join them. Jacque strips off his shirt before the camera leaves the bed chamber.

In another similar scene, Pierre sends his wife (pregnant with their eighth child) to bed, quipping after she leaves that it’s time to get the party going. He and Jacques both read from the book of love, with Jacques’ passage proclaiming the joys of a ménage a trois. The camera leaves for a bit, and when it returns it seems that everyone in court is trying to enact the book’s naughtier passages: A semi-clothed Jacques carries a woman over his shoulder—one who seems to be play-acting as an unwilling participant—and throws her on a bed, where Jacques has his way with her.

[Spoiler Warning] Those experiences may have impacted how Jacques interpreted his sexual encounter with Marguerite. He tells Pierre that she was a willing participant. Sure, she made some obligatory gestures at resistance, but he says she wanted him as much as he wanted her. (We see a version of that tryst/assault in Jacque’s “chapter” in the film: Both are clothed, but the sex act is unmistakable.) Pierre tells Jacques that few would understand those “nuances” and counsels him to lie outright—deny that anything at all happened between him and Marguerite.

We see Marguerite suffer painful, perfunctory sex with husband Jean, as well. And her sexual experiences are excruciatingly dissected, both with her doctor (as she struggles to figure out why she hasn’t conceived with Jean) and on trial. An orgasm is referred to as a “little death” here, with scientists at the time saying it was a requisite for conception. Meanwhile, scientists and priests believed it was impossible for a woman who was raped to conceive, because a raped woman wouldn’t experience that “little death.” Given that Marguerite was six months pregnant during her trial, which took place six months after the rape, some questioners insinuated that if an encounter did take place, perhaps it was consensual.

Marguerite’s friends gossip about their husbands and their bedroom habits, and all of them—including Marguerite—note that Jacques is “handsome,” albeit a rogue. (The admission makes for an awkward moment at Marguerite’s trial.) She wears a cleavage-revealing dress to greet her husband after he’s been away for a long time: Jean, shocked, tells her to put some decent clothes on. We see her wear some flimsy undergarments, too, though nothing critical is shown.

Jacques flirts with a number of women. Jean insists that Marguerite kiss Jacques—in context, a sign that the men have patched up their differences. (The kiss takes on different characteristics in each “chapter” we see.)

A dead man is strung up as a display, upside down, his privates exposed. A stallion, breaking free, mounts and breeds a mare against her owner’s wishes. (The mare might not’ve been too thrilled, either.)

Violent Content

In the Middle Ages, the business of the nobility was war, plain and simple. Both Jean and Jacques fight for their king and liege lord, and the battles can be extremely wince-worthy. The duel that the two fight is pretty graphic, too.

People get stabbed aplenty, sometimes through the head or face. Someone is shot in the head with a flaming arrow; swords and axes sometimes cause really grievous wounds. We see the massacre of peasant women from afar (the victims apparently have their throats cut). Blood flies and splatters both the ground and, sometimes, the camera. Armor provides some protection, but the pounding that armor takes probably inflicts some damage on the person inside, too. Helmets are ripped off. Combatants are hammered by jousting sticks, which eventually shatter against shields and armor. The bodies of men and horses lie on the ground.

Horses suffer terrible damage, too. One is hacked between the neck and the chest with an axe, killing it. Several fall—with one landing on his rider, which prevents him from getting up and defending himself.

Perhaps the most painful scene, though, is Marguerite’s rape—the version told in Marguerite’s chapter. Unlike Jacque’s version (which we outline in sexual content), this version is an unequivocal assault, with Marguerite screaming and struggling against Jacque’s attack. The act leaves Marguerite weeping on the bed (showing a bit more of her leg in the aftermath than Jacque’s version of events does). Bruises appear on her arm, and she later sits in a tub of water (wearing a slip), seemingly trying to sooth the pain of her assault.

When Jean returns from an operation in Scotland, he reveals that five of the nine squires under his command died. He grabs Marguerite by the throat in anger.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear four f-words—remarkable, really, considering the first recorded use of the word didn’t occur until 1598—more than 200 years after the events chronicled here. We also hear the c-word, “b–ch” and “d–n.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine flows freely at gatherings hosted by Pierre, who often seems pretty inebriated.

Other Negative Elements

Certainly, the 1380s were a very different time than the 2020s, and some of what we see here can feel pretty bothersome. For instance, Jean and Marguerite’s marriage was clearly more of a business arrangement than the union of two people who cared deeply for one another. Indeed, the dowry seems as if it was still being discussed even after the wedding. And a plot of land that was supposed to be a part of that dowry plays a huge role in the rift between Jean and Jacques.

Conclusion

The Last Duel is not meant to be a mere period piece. Produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who play Jean and Pierre, respectively) and directed by acclaimed director Ridley Scott, the film is a #MeToo movie set in the Middle Ages—one that speaks poignantly and pointedly to the all-too-often-ignored acts perpetrated by powerful men.

The beats of the story intentionally echo today’s scandals: The scoundrel commits an unthinkable act and considers it—perhaps sincerely—consensual. He believes his power and position give him a certain immunity. The exhortations for the victim to remain silent, lest harm come to her. When the victim does speak up, she’s subject to scorn and ridicule. But after public outrage swells, the perpetrator is forced to reckon with his actions.

It might feel a bit too on-the-nose for some. But here’s the remarkable thing: The Last Duel seems to stick with what we know about the real Jean, Jacques and Marguerite surprisingly well. The two squires were fast friends before they became enemies. The alleged sexual assault did set the stage for the very last trial by combat in French history. And the duel itself—much like the media circuses surrounding #MeToo stories today—was the talk of the country. King Charles VI demanded that the duel be held off for a month so he could watch it himself.

But in the hands of Ridley Scott—who often grinds his own weapon against religion—The Last Duel takes a few stabs at Christianity, too. The plot sets several straw men on horses that he can thwack down with his directorial jousting stick.

Granted, trial by combat is part of history Few Christians would recommend determining guilt or innocence through these sorts of means, any more than they would judge whether a person is a witch by tossing them in a lake to see if they float. We all understand this. But Scott seems to want to stretch the point—suggesting that belief in a God who watches us and cares what happens to us is superstitious nonsense.

And the line about sexually deviant clergy being kinder to rapists … well, that just feels like a blatant cheap shot. It’s telling that Marguerite—the movie’s most sympathetic character—is the one who rarely, if ever, refers to God at all.

But even stripping the film of Scott’s anti-religious biases, The Last Duel is still plenty problematic. The sex. The violence. The out-of-time profanity. While The Last Duel scores its share of hits during its cinematic jousts, this film is ultimately unhorsed by its gratuitous content.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.