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The Last Duel: Examining Modern Rape Culture in Medieval Times

The Last Duel is about rape. Although the film delves into rape culture in medieval Europe, there are many striking similarities to modern rape culture.

The Last Duel (2021)

3 / 5
5 / 5

Trigger warning: Sexual assault, rape

The Last Duel is a historical drama set in 1386 based on the true story of the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history. And it was all because of a woman. Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) accused the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping her. Despite the fact that the entire world didn’t believe her, she and her husband Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) took the matter all the way to the king, where it was decided that Jean and Jacques would battle to the death. Although The Last Duel delves into rape in medieval Europe, the situation is extremely relevant today. Examining the rape culture in medieval times, we can see the striking similarities to modern rape culture.

Be Careful, Spoilers ahead! Read detailed “Last Duel” movie review

A note on the movie’s length: Yes, it’s long. It’s like three movies in one because it tells the story from the perspectives of the three people involved. And even though the build-up can feel slow and occasionally clunky, it’s worth it, in the end, to have all three perspectives showcase the way different people perceive events. Each retelling humanizes each person so the story feels grounded while simultaneously making the audience uncomfortable by knowing each character intimately. This subject matter of rape is not glossed over nor treated lightly, and it shouldn’t be. This subject is supposed to make the audience uncomfortable because it’s disgusting and wrong, and most disturbingly, is still common today. 

Jean and Marguerite

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Jean de Carrouges
Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges

The movie begins from Jean’s perspective. Jean is a man focused on pride and fighting. He is a classic testosterone-infused male protagonist. Jean spends most of his time fighting — whether it be physically fighting soldiers on the battlefield or verbally sparring with Le Gris and Pierre. Jean begins the movie having lost a wife and child, all his money, and his future title. He pins all his hopes for future happiness on producing an heir with Marguerite and rebuilding his reputation by going to war. Such a proud man was ill-suited to deal with what happened to Marguerite. 

Marguerite and Jean’s relationship is complicated, to say the least. In Jean’s perspective, he is a good husband, and Marguerite is a good wife. They appear to have a marriage based more on the equal partnership than the traditional authoritative husband and submissive wife that was the social norm and expectation during these times. 

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Jean talking to Marguerite
Jean scolds Marguerite

However, once we get Marguerite’s perspective, Jean is revealed to be not nearly as chivalrous and kind as previously shown. Jean carefully left out the way he often treated Marguerite as an object. He is ignorant of his wife’s feelings most of the time. Whenever they have sex, she never feels pleasure, but he doesn’t bother to ask what she thinks or what she wants — he only cares that he is satisfied. When he comes home from fighting and sees she is wearing a dress with a low neckline, he refuses to acknowledge her and calls her a “harlot.” When Marguerite is unable to produce an heir, Jean pins the blame on her, making her feel worthless as producing an heir is her one job, as if she were one of the horses he breeds and not a real person. In one of his most atrocious acts, he nearly chokes Marguerite to death upon finding out she was raped. He victim blames, asking if she incited it, etc. — all questions many rape victims still get asked today

Perhaps even worse, Jean immediately proceeds to insist they have sex so Le Gris won’t be the last man to take her. Marguerite has just experienced sexual assault and is traumatized. She is least comfortable in a sexual setting. She verbalizes her refusal, but Jean rejects it. So Marguerite obeys him. This scene showcases the complexities between consensual and nonconsensual sex we may not focus on as much, as it’s clear Marguerite is coerced into it and the power dynamic between them forces her into the role of a servant in many regards. Technically, she consents, but only because she’s obligated to. This would be considered marital rape by today’s standards.

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Jean grabbing Marguerite by the arm in anger
Jean is upset with Marguerite after she admits she found Le Gris handsome in court

During this time, the system of “coverture” was part of common law. Coverture meant that once a woman was married, she lost all of her legal rights, like the right to own property, to execute a will, to sue, etc. A married woman was “covered” by her husband. In fact, she was considered his property. If a man raped another man’s wife, it was considered as property damage to the husband. This is why Jean reacts the way he does upon finding out Le Gris has raped Marguerite, exclaiming that Le Gris cannot stop doing evil to him. Not Marguerite. Because Marguerite is, in the eyes of the law, Jean’s property, and if another man hurt her, he was foremost hurting Jean. A wife who was raped by another man could only receive justice if a.) her husband decided to take the matter to court and b.) if he could prove that what the rapist had done had somehow made her unable to perform her “wifely duties” because she was considered a servant to her husband. 

The situation shown in this scene is one that may not be focused on as much but is important because Marguerite never gets to have control over her own body, even with her husband. It’s not just her rapist who takes away her choices — Jean and the legal system do as well. Jean treats her body as if it’s something he owns. So by these societal standards, it’s a miracle he decides to take Marguerite’s case to court, go all the way to the king, and offer his life to save her honor. Of course, he is mostly prioritizing his own honor. He is by no means a “hero” of this story or even a good husband. He proposes a fight to the death to appease his own pride. He is willing to sacrifice not only his wife’s life but the life of their son in order to prove his honor and get revenge on Le Gris — not only for raping his wife but for taking his land, his title, etc. It’s a selfish and reckless thing to do. Jean is an unlikeable protagonist, but a very real one. Many men like him exist today. 

Le Gris

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Jacques Le Gris
Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris

Le Gris is the rapist in the film. Le Gris is promiscuous and full of himself. He engages in debauchery early on in the film and is constantly egged on by his superior, Pierre (Ben Affleck). Although we don’t know much about Le Gris before he became a squire beyond the fact that he was poor and lacking a title, it’s easy to see how he and many other men during this time were raised to believe they had infinite power over women. Moreover, Le Gris and Jean are both violent men. That violence and aggression thought to define a man bleeds over into Le Gris’s relations with women — he chases them as a predator chases its prey.

His future rape of Marguerite is perfectly foreshadowed in an early scene when he chases a woman at Pierre’s party around the table in a sort of “game.” The scene itself somewhat blurs the lines between nonconsensual and consensual sex because it involves a chase in which the woman tries to “escape” from Le Gris before he catches her, carries her over to the bed, dumps her on the bed face-down, and has sex with her. This scene, like his version of the rape, obscures the woman’s face, so we as the audience never quite know if she’s enjoying what’s happening to her. That’s frightening if you think about it. We can assume she is enjoying it, but only because this is Le Gris’s point of view, and he thinks she’s enjoying herself. But she may not be. The similarities between this scene and when Le Gris rapes Marguerite is obvious — he chases Marguerite around a table, picks her up, dumps her on the bed face-down, and has sex with her in the exact same fashion he does with the woman at the party. The difference that he does not notice or purposefully ignores is that Marguerite very much does not want this to happen — she screams for help and fights back. Yet, when Le Gris later tells Pierre what has happened, he claims Marguerite protested the normal amount a woman should. 

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Le Gris looking at Marguerite
Le Gris looks at Marguerite after she kisses him per her husband’s request

It’s true that during this time and all the way through the 18th century, women were typically expected to refuse a man’s advances no matter what because they were supposed to be virtuous and pure. Women were only meant to have and enjoy sex on their wedding night and once married. This often made sexual relations between men and women outside of wedlock very confusing for both parties, and most likely led to often occurrences of rape. However, in this situation, Marguerite is married to another man, and her rejection of Le Gris is true. Yet, because of the social norms at the time and the way Le Gris has previously interacted with women, he expects Marguerite to protest, and furthermore expects to have to overpower her during sex, even if she truly wanted it. These complicated social expectations provide some context for why Le Gris views rape the way he does. And many men still think of sex this way today — like a battlefield in which the man is to “conquer” the woman. These extremely outdated and disgusting ideas surrounding sex still drive men to rape today. 

Even afterward, Le Gris only feels bad for committing adultery, not rape. Because he believes Marguerite consented, his only regret is that he hurt his friend. As previously mentioned, wives were considered their husband’s property, so in Le Gris’s head, he has only hurt Jean by having sex with his wife. He doesn’t feel the need to apologize to Marguerite or ask for her forgiveness. Instead, he asks God for forgiveness and the clergymen reassure him he is in no trouble. All Le Gris has to do is ask for forgiveness and he is free of any consequences. 

Le Gris is even more terrifying as a rapist because he is a man with connections. He can rely on a system built to protect him (and that still protects men like him). He has a variety of avenues he can take to avoid punishment: Pierre dismisses the charge against him and the clergy state they would defend him. The only reason Pierre faces punishment is because Jean takes the matter to the king and because Le Gris’s own pride won’t allow him to carry the rape charge with him for the rest of his life. He’d rather die protecting his reputation than live (without legal punishment) with the charge. He even maintains his innocence until the very end, like many rapists do, refusing to confess in any form and maintaining that he was innocent. It seems he truly believes he’s innocent, too. He dies anyway. Le Gris, like many men, like many rapists, holds himself in high esteem and thinks he can do no wrong because he’s been socialized to believe it. 

The Final Rape Scene

A still from 'The Last Duel' of Marguerite dressed in all black for the duel
Jodie Comer as Marguerite, dressed in all black for the duel

The Last Duel rape scene from Marguerite’s perspective deserves its own section. This scene is an absolutely terrifying masterpiece of sound production, camerawork, direction, and acting. This scene reveals the full truth of what happened. It’s even worse than the first version; it’s overwhelming and graphic. It’s extremely difficult to watch. But the nuances of this version are important. Firstly, the music is changed to sound more tense, inciting fear in the audience, especially because we already know what is about to happen. It gets worse because this version shows Marguerite’s frantic struggle to escape much more than in Le Gris’s version. She screams and fights back much more. Here, the “chase” up the stairs and around the table seems much less like a game and much more like a desperate attempt to flee a monster. The audio forces the audience to realize how big and menacing Adam Driver is. The sound design puts emphasis on every one of Driver’s steps so they sound loud and echo throughout the rooms with booming finality, showcasing his great physical power. 

The camera focuses much more on Marguerite’s reactions, allowing her to appear more in her own narrative instead of being relegated to an object Le Gris is trying to obtain, as she was portrayed in the previous version. Marguerite’s face is shown throughout most of the scene, so we get to see all of her reactions. Comer gives an agonizing performance. The camera shows her face during the rape. Her eyes fill with pure desperation and fear as Le Gris pins her on the bed, then they seem to glaze over as the action happens, and then the life leaves her eyes once it’s over, as if she’s just been killed, and surely, a part of her has. Her body collapses afterward. We get to see the aftermath neither man saw nor cared to see: Marguerite is psychologically and physically broken, exhibited by her depressed behavior and the bruises on her arms, showing that Le Gris used violent force to subdue her. Marguerite becomes a husk of the woman she used to be, yet she does not give up. Unlike many women before her and what many women sadly still do now, she fights back. She fights back against a system built to suppress and silence her, one even more openly cruel than the system we face now. She accepts the risks without fear because what does she have to lose? Marguerite is a brave protagonist and the true hero of this movie. Comer’s performance is brilliant and compelling. And the writing for her perspective is phenomenal, no doubt thanks to the female writer, Nicole Holofcener, who Damon and Affleck collaborated with

A Note on Diversity

There is absolutely no ethnic or racial diversity in The Last Duel. One could argue POC did not exist in France during this time. However, multiple scholars have proven that, in fact, POC did exist in medieval Europe. What roles they had in society is more debatable. The main protagonists of this film were white, according to historical paintings. Perhaps it might have been helpful to see POC cast at the very least as background characters. Racial diversity is always a complicated topic to address in medieval movies. Whatever the case, this movie is all white and tells the story of a white woman overcoming great obstacles. The Last Duel receives a 3/5 Incluvie score because women are still an underrepresented group in film, and this movie features a well-developed female protagonist.

The Last Duel is exclusively in theaters now. 

Editor’s note: This Incluvie score was changed to better reflect the lack of racial diversity in the film.