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The Last Duel: The Commodification of Sexual Assault in Film

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

TW: Descriptions of depictions of sexual assault

I recently watched The Last Duel on HBO Max, and I absolutely hated it. Watching it felt like punishment: it is two hours and 32 minutes long and you feel every single second of it. Beyond the runtime, the entire film is dark (literally) and bleak. The entire premise of the movie is based on the very real historical accounts of the last legally sanctioned judicial duel in France in 1386. Jean de Carrouges duels Jacques Le Gris because Carrouges had accused Le Gris of raping Marguerite de Carrouges, his wife. The judicial duel occurred because Carrouges went directly to King Charles VI because his local authority, Count Pierre d’Alencon, supposedly gave Le Gris special treatment and the Count had declared Le Gris not guilty. I’ll go back to the mechanics of the judicial aspect in a moment.

The subject matter is rape, so I was not expecting an upbeat movie. However, nor did I expect a boys’ movie, an excuse to watch the same battle twice and a bloody duel while awkwardly trying to make points about how women suffered and believing women. The fim is divided into 3 “chapters” : Jean de Carrouges’ “Truth,” Jacques Le Gris’ “Truth,” and lastly Marguerite de Carrouges’ Truth. They should be more aptly titled, “Chapter 1: Marguerite’s Idiot Husbands’ Bad Life Choices and Awful Reaction to an Event He Did Not Witness,”; “Chapter 2: The Rapist’s Disgusting Delusions and Victim Blaming,”; and “Chapter 3: Marguerite Being Failed by Everyone in Her Life.” The point of the chapters was to show the varying perspectives of the events leading up to the rape, and the rape itself. It tries very hard to show “he said, she said” without saying it and the result is abysmal. 

The first third of this movie is Matt Damon, Carrouges, being sad™ because he feels personally attacked by Adam Driver, Le Gris—his wife being raped is just another offense by Le Gris. The second third champions Le Gris as just a man coming from nothing, trying to social climb and unfortunately falling in love with his ex-friend’s wife. This section gaslights the audience into believing Le Gris that this was a consensual affair brought on by mutual attraction. The dialogue changes a little from Carrougue’s section as well as subtle glances. This would almost be clever, if it wasn’t about something so vile. Le Gris interprets small smiles and nervous glances as flirting (and his obsession with Marguerite as love) and the audience is supposed to be conflicted about whether or not to believe Marguerite’s kindness towards him as reciprocation. 

I take offense to this. Firstly, I have no interest in seeing a rapist’s perspective or sympathizing with him. Secondly, the unreliable narrator cliche bullshit only works if you don’t believe Marguerite the first time she says she was raped. In the last third, because you watch the horrific, graphic, and long rape scene as Marguerite actually experienced it, I think there’s supposed to be a moment where you go “Oh no, I was tricked! I believed Le Gris, I feel so guilty.” I was just repulsed to be subjected to this scene—for a second time—because even in Le Gris’ perspective where consent is dubious at best, it was still a rape scene. None of the “clever” emotional manipulations of this film works if you believe women. 

There is an extremely troubling scene in Le Gris’ perspective that is meant to show how Le Gris could have confused Marguerite’s resistance as playful coquettishness. At a celebration, Le Gris chases a woman around the room as she giggles until several people throw her on the bed and Le Gris jumps on top of her as she continues to laugh and says “no” repeatedly in a tone that could be interpreted as playful. The audience watching it may think: “Here is an instance of Le Gris having sex with a woman who says “no” but that’s fine in this instance because she’s clearly into it and playing along.” However I question to what extent is this truly an exemplary moment of consent: This woman is in no place to resist, she is both outnumbered physically, and there’s a clear power imbalance as she is in the presence of nobility that is quite literally the law, and she’s a woman alone who has been “teasing” Le Gris. With a power imbalance, there can never be true consent. This scene, like many others in the film, beat you over the head with foreshadowing and metaphors, and they don’t hold up against scrutiny. 

This all leads me to ask: Who is this movie for? It’s certainly not for sexual abuse survivors who would watch a film using sexual assault as a plot device that is tirelessly dissected and questioned. It’s not for people who believe sexual assaault survivors when they speak up. This film is more akin to torture porn than selfrighteous historical fiction. I conclude this film is for “nice guys,” white knights who want to save women, but first make sure they hear what the men have to say happened, before they “jump to conclusions.” Now if you’re thinking, isn’t the point of the film, that Marguerite is telling the truth and is unfairly persecuted?, you wouldn’t be wrong. That’s the point the film is trying to make but it completely fails. In the beginning of each chapter, there’s a black screen with the title of the chapter in white text. For Marguerite’s Chapter, after the title, all the words fade, until just “Truth” remains on the screen. It’s such a patronizing moment to point out that the woman’s experience is the truth. Nevertheless, I do appreciate that her perspective shows what a miserable person her husband is too; he is not the savior he thinks himself to be. 

Now, if this film is supposed to do Marguerite de Carrouges justice, why is the marketing point and the TITLE The Last Duel? Because at the end of the day, this movie is building up to the duel between Marguerite’s husband and her rapist, Le Gris. Scenes from the battle were what was advertised. Let’s call back to the judicial aspect of the duel, that it’s a duel to the death. If Carrouges wins, Le Gris is guilty in death. If Le Gris wins, he becomes clear of all charges and Marguerite is burned at the stake for lying about her rape. These consequences are historically accurate. The horror of that potential outcome is briefly explored in the film and it’s probably the best bit of dialogue where Marguerite berates her husband for gambling her life and treating if it was fine because he could lose his life too. 

Truthfully, Marguerite is a flat character. Jodie Comer’s performance is phenomenal but Marguerite’s character arc is being traded like livestock by her father to her husband and then being raped and accosted by society. She is victimized repeatedly; her rape is just one item on the list of ways she’s been abused by men. The depressing part is that I comprehend that women in the 1300s did not have real autonomy, but this film eerily places rape on this platform to interrogate and does not do the work to say it reflects the modern world as well. I worry that some people that watch this film will think women really had it bad then, and that they do not understand that a lot of the horrors Marguerite faces are contemporary. Instead because this film is solely seen as historic, the rape will be equated that way as well. 

This event did not have to be made into a film, the attempts at deep cutting sexual assault story is just a means to an end—Matt Damon and Adam Driver fighting to the death. The climax of the movie doesn’t involve Marguerite. During the duel, it cuts back to Marguerite chained on a platform looking down at the duel, of course only during brief pauses in the fight. The rape was just a step leading to this fight and it feels dehumanizing. A judicial duel is an interesting concept for a film, but this very real story was not handled well. If it was Marguerite’s story, the duel would not be the most important part. Prioritizing the duel against the tragic backstory would be in very poor taste: You can see the attempts to focus on Marguerite but it doesn’t matter if the literal premise of the film is this final duel. If it was her story, the duel would not have to be shown—just her future afterwards. 

The Last Duel only subverts expectations for those that don’t believe women. This film is so clearly trying to vy for awards and a pat on the back for portraying a sexual assault and reiterating that indeed, the victim is the most important person. And yet, it completely fails in this regard, the men get the most screen time: Marguerite’s husband and her rapist get their own chapters before her. The climax is the duel, and the sexual assault is relegated to the set up for the fight. The Last Duel does the opposite of what it clumsily attempted to do; it degrades a sexual assault survivor to a plot device.  

Francesca is a jack of all trades. An actor, a writer, an artist, and most importantly, a friend to many. She leads a life of passion, of unadulterated love, of sacrifice—all of which causes her great pain and pleasure. Still, she wouldn't have it any other way. Isn't that what makes life worth fighting for? The constant battle between the ups and the downs? The guarantee that everything you hold near and dear to your heart will one day disappear? Reinoso finds the beauty in this devastating struggle, a struggle humanity has reckoned with since the beginning of time itself.
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