Ms. Representation: MeToo from the Medieval times
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel
“Are you sure you didn’t dream that he raped you?” “Was the sex pleasurable?” “Perhaps you had another lover, and you are accusing this man to cover it up.” No, these aren’t comments from the internet trolls on a #MeToo testimony. These are remarks made by the prosecution in the court while interrogating a rape survivor in Sir Ridley Scott’s latest release, The Last Duel. Set in 1386, the film captures the last judicial duel ordered by the Parlement of Paris -- between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), where the former accuses the latter of raping his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer).
Adapted from Historian Eric Jager’s book of the same name, The Last Duel is an attempt to redress how female experiences have been systemically erased from history. The narrative takes a Rashomon approach—we see the story through the eyes of Jean de Carrouges, Jacques Le Gris, and Marguerite. In Rashomon, even though the film clearly establishes an occurrence of rape, it never addresses it. The listener even says that one shouldn’t believe the woman’s story because they ‘use their tears to fool everyone. They even fool themselves’. But unlike Rashomon, this film picks a side: that of the woman.
This is significant because, historically, women’s stories and experiences are often doubted and/or erased. While writing the script for The Last Duel, the writers (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener) have admitted that they found enough details about what the men did, but not quite of Marguerite. In an interview with the New York Times, Damon says that while his and Affleck’s portions were adaptations, Holofcener’s part is ‘kind of an original screenplay’ as ‘nobody was really talking about what was happening with the women, because they didn’t even have personhood.’ It is also necessary to note that most 'trial by combat' cases pertain to injustices against women because their testimonies are simply not enough, and the decision is hence left to God's will.
But in Marguerite's case, even that isn't enough. Historians have written that even after Jean won the trial by combat, the verdict grew to be controversial. Disagreements about the details began to creep in: some claimed that Le Gris lost because he slipped on his opponent's blood. There are also records of a ‘deathbed’ confession from a felon who claimed that he raped Marguerite and not Le Gris. Historians have also written that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Locke, who prized rationality so much, championed Le Gris to be an ‘innocent victim’ of an unjust method (trial by combat). They did not acknowledge Marguerite’s testimony or even consider it. Historian John-Paul Heil wrote that for the Enlightenment intellectuals, the story of France’s last duel was ‘a tale of judicial injustice’ and not ‘injustice against women.’
Historically, there’s evidence for the absence of documentation that details women’s experiences. According to historian Kathryn Gravdal as quoted in the Smithsonian Magazine, “a register of crimes recorded in four French hamlets between 1314 and 1399 lists just 12 rape or attempted rape cases, as ‘only virgins or high-status rape victims’—like Marguerite—“actually had their day in court.” You can sense this erasure in Scott’s Last Duel, where Marguerite’s mother-in-law mentions the sexual violence unleashed by their own soldiers on peasant women. The film’s three-narrator structure also shows how the male gaze refuses to acknowledge the experience of the woman. Only with Marguerite’s account, which the film presents as truth, do you see the gap between the men’s vain opinions of themselves and the truth. Several have criticised the repetition of the rape scene, but it is necessary to show Le Gris' male entitlement. These shifts in the perspective are beautifully brought through by the lead trio—Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer.
A major criticism against The Last Duel is that the writing is decidedly modern. Several lines seem to be written with a 21st-century lens, especially in Marguerite's case. We have come a long way in terms of the laws alright. For starters, women aren’t considered property, by law, now. But the social judgment has not changed much. It is important to know our history for it shows how far we have come, and also the distance we need to go. To quote Martin Luther King Jr, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”