The Last Duel fails to interrogate the complex relationship between power and sexual violence in a plot fundamentally about power and sexual violence.
For those who missed this critically anticipated box office flop, The Last Duel is a Ridley Scott-directed Ben Affleck and Matt Damon brainchild, co-written with Nicole Holofcener. Before you queue it up on Disney+ due to its star-studded cast and production team, consider that this film is a retelling of an historic rape conviction that led to the last sanctioned duel in France. Damon and Adam Driver play war buddies Jean Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris who, after squabbling over money and property, duel to the death because Le Gris rapes Carrouges wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).
I have been surprised to see very little written about the crux of The Last Duel: the rape. A review of the film referred to The Last Duel as a “bonfire of the bros,” in direct contradiction to Affleck’s characterization of the film’s theme as anti-chivalry. Affleck contends that it is chivalry that denies Marguerite her humanity. Generously interpreted, The Last Duel is the story of a man avenging his wife’s honor by killing her rapist—an archetypal plotline used by Lifetime movies and romance novels to differentiate good men from bad (#NotAllMen).
But The Last Duel solely nibbles the edges of the immorality of sexual violence, falling headfirst into the trap of conflating rape with love. In perhaps its most heinous offense, this film leaves Le Gris’s apparent affection for Marguerite unexamined. We are meant to believe that he was trying to save her from a loveless marriage of financial convenience. If that were the case, why would he:
- Sneak into her house.
- After her servants left to assist her mother in law.
- Use his employee to distract her handmaiden.
- Chase her around the house.
- Restrain her.
- Then order her to keep the rape a secret.
The Last Duel fails to interrogate the complex relationship between power and sexual violence in a plot fundamentally about power and sexual violence. I’m hardly a cinephile, but enduring yet another portrayal of sexual violence where the rapist is so smitten with his victim that he is unable to control himself is an insult to my intelligence. Rape is fueled by power and control—not love. Even by feudal standards, Le Gris demonstrating his “love” for Marguerite through rape is … a stretch. In a film supposing to revel in the power of the truth, where is the reflexivity in representing sexual violence?
It is to Hollywood’s detriment that the cis-hetero male hero complex remains intact. In Affleck and Damon’s clumsy attempt to argue in favor of believing survivors, they fail to see the bigger picture: That the last duel in France was never about Marguerite—though her resilience through trauma, trial and the threat of being burned at the stake is admirable, to say the least. The duel was about masculinity and property—Marguerite being a critical asset. Now those are two concepts worthy of interrogation. It’s a cryin’ shame that skilled creators such as Affleck, Damon and Scott were not up to the task.