Following winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for Good Will Hunting, their first screenplay which they wrote together, and a friendship of over 40 years, Bostonians Matt Damon and Ben Affleck re-team for the screenplay of The Last Duel, a historical epic based on actual events that unravels long-held assumptions about France’s last sanctioned duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, two friends turned bitter rivals.
Eric Jager’s compelling 2004 book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France caught the eye of Matt Damon, who immediately saw its cinematic potential and envisioned Ridley Scott taking the helm.
Having worked with Scott on The Martian, Damon knew his visual sensibility and experience with big, historical epics throughout four decades in Hollywood was perfectly suited to this true story based on historical source materials about a legendary duel to the death, the last officially recorded trail by combat of its kind. The book brings the turbulent Middle Ages to life in striking detail.
Telling The Story
When etiquette, social aspirations and justice were driven by the codes of chivalry, the consequences for defying the institutions of the time – the Church, the nobility at court, a teenage king – could be severe. For a woman navigating these violent times, one who had no legal standing without the support of her husband, the stakes were even higher.
Jager’s extensive research involved 10 years of tracking down, translating and scrutinizing centuries-old historical records – everything from chronicles, legal records and property deeds to military receipts, architectural plans and historical maps. “I found some documents containing errors or omissions. I also found documents that had either been entirely overlooked or had been mentioned only in very obscure places and that didn’t seem to be a part what historians and scholars knew about the case,” says Jager. “So one of the first big surprises for me was that what historians and legal scholars have been saying for centuries, that Marguerite was mistaken, or even that she had lied, didn’t seem to me to be true.”
The author took numerous trips to the Normandy region, where he visited the actual castle where Jean de Carrouges’ family resided, the royal palace where Parlement assembled to witness the request for a duel and Saint-Martin des Champs (the old monastery retrofitted to host the duel itself). Jager was even able to view the original, handwritten record of the legal testimony, which, due to the sturdy parchment used in the 14th century, was very well preserved and clearly legible.
“It (the duel) is remembered like an old family tragedy,” says Jager. “It’s like part of the history of the Normandy region, part of life there. They have festivals where fencing enthusiasts re-enact the duel. People there live close to history, and they’re fascinated by it.”
With Scott attached as director, Damon and Affleck spent several months speaking to some wonderful screenwriters, but ultimately decided to tackle it themselves.
“We knew it was an incredible story, the question was how do we tell it in a way that would be really interesting,” says Damon. “And that’s when we came up with the perspectives idea and, ultimately, the kind of the bait and switch, where you have two thirds of a movie with these two men only to discover that this woman is actually the hero of the whole story.”
Damon and Affleck were soon collaborating on the script with Nicole Holofcener, a writer/director (Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money) and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), with each writing from the perspective of Carrouges, Le Gris and Marguerite, respectively, to ensure the story effectively captured all three voices.
According to Holofcener, “The reason I came on in is because Matt and Ben are not women. Not that they couldn’t write terrific women, plenty of men do, but I think that’s what I was able to add: my perspective as a female, and a different eye and a different voice as well.”
Men like Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris were the heroes of their own stories – but unreliable narrators of history. Marguerite’s perspective is essential, offering a needed correction to the men’s unchallenged views of themselves and the world around them.
“These guys were born into the middle of a hundred year war. They only knew this incredibly violent life, part of which was literally raping and pillaging, which were—and still are—weapons of war, but that was the world that these guys lived in,” says Damon. “It was incredibly, incredibly violent, so when reading the book it felt like the only story that was worth telling was hers; her incredible bravery under this awful pressure, to be interrogated that way, to be shamed that way, but to never relent and, in that culture, tell the truth about what happened to her.”
When Marguerite de Carrouges is attacked, it is traumatizing on many levels. Holofcener says, “After she is raped, the world becomes different forever for Marguerite. She was brutalized; it was almost a culmination of a woman’s life at that time, because she had no rights, no control and no power and she was treated like a piece of meat, even by her husband. So the rape was the last straw. I think she didn’t even care at that point what happened to her if she told the truth. She knew that he could kill her just for saying it and she knew it was going to end the way it was going to end without her say.”
“She admits to her husband that she was raped, which in 14th-century France was an incredibly brave and risky decision for any woman,” says producer Kevin J. Walsh. “Women at that time carried few societal rights and were commonly under the legal guardianship of men. A woman who had the courage to speak out about sexual assault was often terrorized and vulnerable to further violence by her husband and entire community on the grounds of infidelity, promiscuity, and disobedience. Considering these grave risks, Marguerite’s decision to step forth and tell the truth was even more heroic.”
Adds Affleck, “We found so many aspects of the formal, codified patriarchy of 14th century Western Europe to still be present in vestigial ways (and in some cases almost unchanged) in today’s society. Further, we wanted to examine how institutions, acculturation and social norms had and continue to have such a profound effect on how an individual perceives reality and explore the notion that these factors had a great deal to do with the widely varying historical accounts from the time as well as use perspective to dramatize those private moments which were not recorded by history.”
Grounded in the story of one extraordinary woman, The Last Duel is an exploration of power and survival, and the cultural forces that conspired to distort that truth. Despite their shared experiences, these characters lived in different worlds…and there can only be one truth.
Bringing the characters to life
Matt Damon, whose credits as an actor include Good Will Hunting, The Departed, The Talented Mr. Riley and the Jason Bourne films, takes on the role of Jean de Carrouges, the seasoned, ambitious knight from a respected family in Northern France who is struggling for power and position. Fighting is all he knows, and while revered for his loyalty and service to the King, he is stubborn, hotheaded and deeply mistrustful.
Adam Driver, who has starred in films including Marriage Story, BlacKkKlansman, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Rise of Skywalker, plays Jacques Le Gris, the squire accused of assaulting his friend Jean de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite. As Pierre d’Alençon’s protégé, he is both charming and arrogant.
Jodie Comer, who co-stars in the BBC hit Killing Eve and can be seen on the big screen in Free Guy, plays Marguerite de Carrouges, a hero ahead of her time who risked her life to stand up for the truth. Married to Jean, she is a devoted wife who manages her husband’s affairs in his absence, but the marriage was negotiated by her father. “For Marguerite, this was an arranged marriage…it wasn’t a marriage that stemmed from love. I think she has respect for Carrouges, but it’s not a happy marriage at all,” says Comer.
Ben Affleck, whose credits as an actor include The Way Back, Gone Girl and Pearl Harbor, as a director and producer, Argo, and as a writer and director, The Town, is Count Pierre d’Alençon, a wealthy and powerful land baron who is liege lord to Jean de Carrouges. Generous and somewhat impetuous, he relies on one of his vassals, Jacques Le Gris (whom he favors over Carrouges), for the collection of his debts, rewarding him with substantial gifts of land.
To help visually convey the brutal and gritty nature of a colorful world steeped in tradition and fanfare, Scott looked to acclaimed cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, with whom he has worked on five films (beginning with “Prometheus” in 2012), to man the cameras. Some scenes in The Last Duel were shot with six cameras, all filming simultaneously, but every scene was filmed with at least four cameras. Wolski used large-format Arri ALEXA mini LF’s, Angenieux short zooms and Panavison 65mm vintage primes to ensure Scott would have the best looking footage with which to cut the film.
Production designer Arthur Max and his department began preparing for the jousting portions of the film six months prior to principal photography. Referencing the surviving court documents and Eric Jager’s book and working with models and pre-viz, Max was able to help Ridley Scott better visualize how these scenes would play out.
Filming with Sensitivity
“The Last Duel” is grounded in Marguerite de Carrouges experiences more than 600 years ago. She was one person, but her story is a powerful reminder of the legacy of survivors – and all who have quietly, but steadfastly fought for justice – throughout history.
Medieval Europe was a brutal and unforgiving place for women, as documented in numerous historical records and manuscripts. A woman’s integrity was determined by her chastity and loyalty to her husband, and conforming to these expectations was crucial for survival. The term “rape” was rarely used, and the women who came forward with rape allegations or suffered any kind of sexual abuse were often discriminated against.
When Marguerite spoke out – in vivid and unambiguous detail – about what happened to her, it placed both her reputation and her life in danger. Like many survivors of sexual assault, she faced an extraordinary burden in proving the truth, as well as the judgment of her community. “The crime was horrible, but death for her husband and herself does not fit the crime,” says Nicole Holofcener. “By today’s standards, she was the victim of a horrific crime, and yet it is the ego and the pride of these two men (Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris) that becomes the true incentive for the duel.”
While the assault is an important part of Marguerite’s story, she does not let it define her, and the film worked to bring her personhood to the forefront. In order to ensure the film remained faithful to Marguerite’s story as a survivor, the studio sought advice from several advocacy organizations on the story’s portrayal of sexual abuse, survivors and recovery.
The production hired intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (“Sex Education”) to assist with the preparation, safety and comfort of everyone during principal photography. “The intimacy coordinator is a practitioner who brings skills and a process and a structure to the film’s intimate content, much like a stunt coordinator would do for the fight scenes,” says O’Brien.
O’Brien worked closely with the cast and filmmakers to make sure everyone understood how certain sequences would appear to the audience, and that the portrayal of sexual violence and violence against women on screen was handled with sensitivity. Marguerite’s account of what happened to her had been clouded by historical chroniclers and members of the clergy in the centuries that followed, so Ridley Scott felt it was important to depict the assault to leave no doubt about what she went through.
Shot from two perspectives, but unequivocal on the crime, this scene was filmed without any nudity, as the filmmakers were most interested in capturing the emotional toll of Marguerite’s experience without exploiting it. Scott chose to film the scenes in real time and in chronological order, too.
Scripts and call sheets were clearly marked as to whose perspective was being filmed when. “We always talked about the different perspectives with Ridley before we shot, because the intention changes depending on whose perspective you are in…always, even in little tiny ways,” says Damon. “The perspectives don’t wildly diverge, except in terms of intention, which then kind of informs the characters’ understanding of what’s happening.”
It required the actors to alter their performances when shooting scenes for another character’s point of view, as they needed to lean into how that particular’s character sees you. Comer explains, “It’s so important that in each perspective the audience really believes whichever character is narrating it, and that was actually really fun to do. It was also a little dizzying, as sometimes you were shooting three perspectives on the same day.”