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Truthless People 

The Last Due captures social structures built on power rather than facts.

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click to enlarge 20TH CENTURY STUDIOS
  • 20th Century Studios
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In Eric Jager's fascinating 2004 book The Last Duel, the truth of the real-life case he focused on was, for the most part, irrelevant. That might seem counter-intuitive where a work of non-fiction is concerned, but Jager was not approaching the 14th-century case of Lady Marguerite de Carrouges—who accused squire Jacques Le Gris of rape, leading her husband, Sir Jean de Carrouges, to challenge the alleged assailant to trial by combat—as a forensic historian attempting to "solve" the crime. Rather, his work was a procedural exploring the workings of a medieval justice system premised on a) powerful men would make decisions based on preserving and reasserting that power, and b) God intervening on the side of the righteous.

A movie adaptation of such a story, however, doesn't have the luxury of being so [shrug emoji] as to what actually happened in a case of alleged sexual assault. We're going to see things played out in front of our faces, with all the inevitable emotional impact that entails. So for director Ridley Scott's adaptation of The Last Duel, the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck takes what initially appears to be a Rashomon-like approach to the events leading up to Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris facing off in Paris on Dec. 29, 1386—until it's ultimately clear that's not actually what's going on here at all.

The post-prologue narrative is broken into chapters, one each from the point of view of our three principal characters. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) shows us the life of a widowed veteran of war struggling to pay his debts to his lord, Count Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck); outraged when his one-time comrade-in-arms, Le Gris (Adam Driver), becomes d'Alençon's favorite; and eventually remarried to Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Le Gris' perspective shows us his libertine ways and his fascination with Marguerite, leading up to his attack. And Marguerite's story emphasizes the role of a woman in this era, as transferred property first of her father, and then of her husband, expected to do nothing but produce an heir.

Seeing the rape occur in both Le Gris' and Marguerite's accounts leaves little question that is happened; Le Gris simply believes that she wanted it, then lies about it when things get dicey. The emphasis then, as it is in Jager's book, is on the process, with a clear sense for how little things have changed in 650 years. Marguerite's story is questioned because she admitted once to finding Le Gris attractive; a confrontation between Marguerite and her mother-in-law (Harriet Walter) emphasizes that women are expected to keep their mouth shut and endure rather than bring shame on themselves and their men. The Last Duel is frequently none-too-subtle in its metaphors—like when de Carrouges grows furious that an interloping stallion might have impregnated one of his prize mares—conveying how any notion of "justice" is stacked against Marguerite as a woman.

Yet The Last Duel might actually be more bitterly effective at capturing this era's particularly manifestations of toxic masculinity in the wielding of power. Damon and Driver are both perfectly solid at capturing two different kinds of men—de Carrouges the man of action unable to handle being denied what he believes he's entitled to; Le Gris the more subtly calculating manipulator—but the real kick comes from two supporting performances. Affleck is a delight as d'Alencon, a petty and self-absorbednobleman who seems to delight in wielding his ability to knock de Carrouges down a peg. And Alex Lawther turns the young King Charles VI of France into a schoolboy who practically shakes with delight that he can pit two men against one another, to the death, for his amusement. It's not just a man's world; it's a world for men who have the ability to fuck, or fuck with, whomever they please.

That's why the final shot of The Last Duel is so bittersweet at showing a mother who loves her young son, while knowing that he's growing up into a world where he could be just another Le Gris. In a departure from any Rashomon-like ambiguity, the caption for "The Truth According to Lady Marguerite" allows the words "The Truth" to linger, making it clear whose story we are meant to believe. Yet in a way, the film's narrative only underlines the approach that Eric Jager took in his book: There are circumstances, and institutional structures, that too often make "the truth" irrelevant.

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