[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Near the end of the first of the three Rashomon-esque chapters that comprise the narrative structure of Ridley Scott's The Last Duel, Jodie Comer’s Marguerite tearfully informs Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges that his former friend, Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, broke into their home under false pretenses, pinned her to the bed, and sexually assaulted her, concluding her tale with a surprisingly blunt and frank summary: “I was raped.”
In the final chapter—presented from her own point-of-view, rather than her husband’s—she repeats the story… with one significant alteration: “He raped me.”
That phrasing makes a world of difference.
The Last Duel depicts 14th Century France without the romance and glamor typically associated with historical epics, juxtaposing the antiquated moral values of its period setting with the audience’s (presumably) more modern and enlightened attitudes. In Normandy circa 1380, marriage is a business transaction, “consent” is relative (proper ladies are, in fact, expected to “resist” courtship as a matter of custom), and rape is considered a crime only because it violates a man’s property rights. Indeed, for the majority of its running time, the movie treats Marguerite as an object—the catalyst that propels the feud between the male leads to its violent climax. Gradually, however, she emerges as the ultimate protagonist—a heroine that requires neither weapons nor armor to oppose injustice. She refuses to resign herself to victimhood, risking the loss of her reputation—and, in the event that Jean is slain during the eponymous fight to the death, her very life—in order to hold her tormentor accountable for his actions.
There's a lot to love about The Last Duel—from the gorgeous cinematography to the elaborately designed costumes to the superb performances (including a delightfully campy Ben Affleck as the flamboyant and hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alençon)—but it’s the film’s all-too-relevant themes that truly resonate.