Last month Ridley Scott fans got an official trailer for The Last Duel

The film is based on real-life events and the ordeal of one particular woman in medieval times.

Medieval settings have of course long been a focus for feminist stories, but how do they continue to be relevant for feminists today?

In the book, Medieval Women On Film: Essays on Gender, Cinema and History Kevin J. Harty writes:  

‘Film has embraced medieval women for more than a century, and that embrace has been anything but monolithic — indeed, it has at times been downright contradictory. Women, both historical and fictional, have appeared in film as role models, as saviours, as seducers, as villains, as victims and as victimisers’. 

The Last Duel: A true story for modern times

Jodie Comer and Matt Damon star in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. The film is based on the 2004 book of the same name, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by American author, Eric Jager. 

In the trailer, a woman called Marguerite De Carrouges claims that she has been raped by her husband’s best friend. Nobody believes her, leaving her life hanging in a delicate balance for being a ‘false witness’, or lying. This setting then leads to the last legally sanctioned duel in France. Marguerite De Carrouges’ experience is the focus of the film with an allowance for some medieval jousting action. 

Though the events are based on a true story from 1386, it could just as easily be a story from 2017 when the #MeToo movement exploded in Hollywood. Over 80 women accused former film producer, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual assault, including 18 accusations of rape. The stories surrounding the accusations bear an uncanny similarity to the one portrayed in The Last Duel. A woman is attacked, nobody believes her, she is shamed and threatened with punishment, and all the while, a powerful man gains more power.

A powerful feminist statement

So, why chose a true story from 1386 rather than one from the recent past? 

The use of a tumultuous historical backdrop creates a powerful and effective feminist statement. Viewers are forced to make a comparison between the treatment of women 635 years ago with their treatment in the present day. The medieval setting does two things: it sends out a message that this iniquitous treatment of women is archaic and outdated; and, it subtly points out that this mistreatment continues to be the experience of many women today.

The Last Duel may be the story of rape in medieval times but in many ways, it’s also the story of rape in the 21st century. In the UK, fewer than one in 60 rape cases lead to a charge in England and Wales. According to The Guardian, police recorded 52,210 rapes in England and Wales in 2020. However, only 843 of these reports resulted in a charge or summons. That is a rate of 1.6 per cent.

The story of Marguerite De Carrouges may be a medieval one, but the sociopolitical comment it makes is fittingly modern.

Why Medieval?  

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are two of the three screenplay writers for The Last Duel. They were also both former colleagues of Harvey Weinstein whose Miramax Studios produced their first film, Good Will Hunting. One could speculate that their choice of material is a response to the Weinstein saga. But regardless of the reasons, a medieval setting certainly offers opulent ground for a feminist message. Is this because medieval women are easy to turn into modern-day feminist icons? Perhaps.

It’s also the case that a remote historical period easily captures the suffering and struggles of women, as well as their defiance against oppressive forces. Being able to get the audience to immediately recognise the inferior social station of women in those times helps to effortlessly convey a feminist message. Seeing a woman wronged, with the law and society working against her, we cannot help but exclaim: ‘Look at how badly women were treated!’ A medieval woman does not even have to be defiant to secure a place in modern feminism, she only needs to be at a clear disadvantage in comparison to men.

The historical context primes the audience to absorb and deliver the feminist message in The Last Duel. Medieval stories like these turn the cinema from a place of entertainment to one of activism for the modern day.

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