Content warning: Rape
“I was raped,” Jodie Comer’s Marguerite tells Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges, her husband. It’s a terrible line, written by Damon, who penned the script for director Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” with Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. The conceit is that each writer tells a story — the same story — from a different character’s perspective. The story: the rape of Marguerite that results in France’s last duel between de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver).
The going is complex enough to remind you of a neo-noir — lots of names thrown around, along with different faces, obscure settings, dates galore. But if it’s tricky to keep up in the first chapter, there are two more (from Le Gris, then Marguerite) that repeat the transpired events, with differences, to catch you up.
The first chapter is told by de Carrouges, beginning with the noble act of he-man war. There’s plenty of slashing and squishing, blood squirting at the camera, jangling chain mail. Yelling, of course. This particular battle was not supposed to be a battle — de Carrouges, out of hubris, was spurred to action by a mass execution of women across the river. So that’s de Carrouges, a headstrong patronizer with a temper as bad as his hair. At least Damon writes what he can play.
This — unfortunately, just a couple of minutes in — is where the problems start. The battle features a couple of exciting shots, but it quickly becomes feckless. The mashing lacks purpose: Any semblance of a conclusion, of meaning, is substituted by Damon’s gnarled face. In this battle, de Carrouges has to be rescued by Le Gris, a squire, who is educated (meaning he speaks Latin, German and reads) and a practiced womanizer.
Le Gris is the rapist. He begins the story as a 14th-century social climber, and eventually leaves de Carrouges’s company for Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Le Gris becomes Pierre’s taxman, and when he knocks on Pierre’s door while burning the midnight oil for the frat-man, he’s invited to join the orgy he interrupted. “Come in, take your pants off,” Pierre says. In other words, be “fun,” not like de Carrouges (“he’s no f—ing fun,” Pierre sighs).
Affleck’s lines give up the charade that any of this maintains gravity and plays as camp. Damon’s lines try for a middle ground, a no-no when camp is involved. Both are a car crash of tones, especially considering the way Scott films the assault — twice.
The first time is in chapter two, which is told from Le Gris’s perspective. Marguerite is home alone, as de Carrouges is at war again (surprise: his campaign fails) and her mother-in-law (Harriet Walter) has left for the day with all the servants in tow. Le Gris enters by deception, then forces his way into her bedroom. He chases her around a table, and the scene implies that, to his eyes, this is all very playful. Marguerite’s shrieks are moan-like. Her “noes” are in jest, not protest. The scene is an ordeal in Damon and Affleck proving that, yes, they do recognize how men distort the facts of sexual assault.
But still, the script falls short of understanding the intricacies of gender politics, and the first scene begs the question: Why show the rape a second time? The first scene established Le Gris’s predation, so overtly characterized by his lust that it’s clearly his manipulation. This clumsy filmmaking uses two separate minutes-long scenes to make a point that a nuanced film could have made without any gratuity.
These scenes are so aggressive, so autofictional of Damon and Affleck’s public images, that they rip the focus from Marguerite. At the end of the film, a caption notes that de Carrouges died and Marguerite retained his properties — and, happily, never remarried. Yet even with its many perspectives, all of which lazily orbit Marguerite, “The Last Duel” never finds its way to the center.