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'The Last Duel': When speaking truth to power self-destructs

The Last Duel
Scott Free Productions/Pearl Street Films/TSG Entertainment

“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men.”

These words come from The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s historical drama about the last sanctioned trial-by-combat in medieval France. This particular movie has been on my radar for a while, as it addresses a topic I have spent years researching and writing about.

Rotten Tomatoes may say the theme of the film is “systemic misogyny,” but I would choose to define it as the debasement of women. As the film helps us see, this problem persists (with certain alterations) today — especially, I would add, in a hypersexualized culture like ours. As such, I am grateful for the opportunity for collective introspection provided by big-screen treatments of this subject.

In spite of my excitement over The Last Duel, there is a problem. Two problems, actually. In attempting to address the debasement of women in society, the movie inadvertently debases its actresses. This is illustrated in two ways: 1. depictions of rape, and 2. sexualized female nudity.

Depictions of rape

Throughout the years, filming sex scenes has proven an uncomfortable — and often even traumatic — experience for countless actors. Director Jim McBride once confessed, “[A]ctors can’t help but be very nervous. There’s something about (love scenes) that exposes them in ways the other scenes don’t.”

The reason these scenes are unique is that they take a good thing — intimate sexual activity — and expose it to public spectacle. As author Alan Noble recently wrote, “Any abuse of sexual intimacy is a uniquely evil affront against someone’s personhood precisely because it treats that personhood as a means to an end.” Noble is addressing explicit pornography, but his words apply to the softcore content found in the plethora of sex scenes in mainstream entertainment. In these scenes, actors’ bodies — and, more often than not, female bodies — are treated as means toward an end, i.e., creating a piece of entertainment.

If “normal” sex scenes can detrimentally affect an actor’s personhood, how much more do scenes of sexual assault? In addressing the ethics of Christians watching rape scenes, Katelyn Beaty writes, “What we do with our bodies profoundly shapes us, even when our bodies are just going through the motions.” She goes on to list several people who were “forever affected” by acting out rape scenarios for the big screen. Filming such content involves, as she puts it, “a hidden human cost.”

In The Last Duel, Jodie Comer’s character is raped. In one interview, she praises the filming crew for handling the material in a “hugely respectful and extremely sensitive” way, causing her to “[feel] very lucky.” In another interview, Comer says, “We had an amazing intimacy coordinator,” and “me and Adam [my scene partner] … had a respect for each other and trust in one another and we both felt very safe.”

Because humans and their experiences are complex, Comer adds another piece of info regarding the filming of the rape scenes: “I used to go swimming in the sea after. It was freezing, but that’s how I shook it off. I’d go in the sea then go and make myself some wholesome food.” This is an implicit acknowledgment that those scenes involved a certain emotional toll — one that required a restorative regiment of comfort food (albeit, healthy) and swimming in freezing water.

The point isn’t that Hollywood should steer clear of sordid sexual topics. On the contrary, there are ways to examine sexual violence artistically and poignantly. Three recent examples that come to mind are Room, Spotlight, and The Assistant— all rated R, and yet all showing respect for its actors. The point here is simply that treatment of sexual violence should not inflict unnecessary violence on a film’s performers.

When all is said and done, whether or not an actress like Comer appears content with filming rape scenes, Christian audiences should still wrestle with questions like those asked by Katelyn Beaty: “What are my consumption habits requiring actors to do with their bodies?”

Female nudity

With the exception of one male corpse, all the graphic nudity in The Last Duel is of the female form. This includes what The Guardian calls “softcore lesbian trysting … in the background to keep the Game of Thrones fans happy.”

One common defense of such content is that it represents an artistic choice. But female nudity in Hollywood is almost three times that of men. To quote one VidAngel commercial, “That doesn’t seem like art. Unless ‘Art’ is the name of a gross gym teacher.”

Yes, the main actors in The Last Duel — including Jodie Comer — remain fully, or mostly, clothed. It is “only” a handful of actresses in the background who are completely naked for an orgy scene. But that is actually an expression of the very problem the film attempts to critique, i.e., the imbalance of power between men and women.

As film critic James Berardinelli notes, “For the most part, only high-profile actresses have been able to dictate no-nudity terms. Lesser-known actresses or those with lower profiles are given a ‘take it or leave it’ option in which they either strip or are passed over. As in any kind of commerce, it’s a matter of who has the power.” In a male-dominated industry like Hollywood, those who hold the most power are men.

The naked women populating the background of the orgy footage in The Last Duel are not A-list actresses who thought it would be a good idea to add “softcore lesbian trysting” to their résumé to help them get more work. No, these women, at this point in their careers, aren’t granted enough clout and agency to dictate their wardrobe choices. Their names may not carry the prestige of a Damon, Driver, Comer, or Affleck, but these no-names still have names — Elise, Fiona, Tassia, and Camille, to be precise. Their dignity as human beings should not be determined by where their names appear in the credits. (Interestingly enough, while these four orgy participants are women, the five “Orgy Spectator” participants in the cast are all male.)

Parley

A couple of clarifications are in order. First, in addressing men being in power, I am not attempting to subvert the Biblical doctrine of male headship within the home and church. Whereas many in our society would automatically label “the patriarchy” as an intrinsic evil, I would not. Hierarchical structures — especially those aligned with Scriptural principles — are beneficial for society.

Second, some might question an article like this when its author has not seen the movie under discussion. This concern would be valid if I were critiquing or condemning the film as a whole. As I have written elsewhere,

“Blind condemnation [of a work of art] is dangerous and unhelpful. When it comes to pornographic content, however, we move away from the debatable and ambiguous elements of artistic merit, and toward more solid distinctions between right and wrong. Hypersexualized storytelling methods are an aspect worth criticizing. A Christian can — and should — condemn pornographic material without having to engage each instance on a case-by-case basis.”

We can condemn Pornhub without ever visiting the site. We can condemn pornography without having to review it all first. And we can condemn pornographic filming methods regardless of where they are found and whether or not we have watched them.

Duel of the (female) fates

The intentions behind The Last Duel are commendable: to hold a mirror up to our society and help us see ourselves from a different perspective. Examining the barbarism of how past societies objectified women — treating them like chattel — can help us see afresh where we might be doing the same today. Based on the trailers alone, not to mention the pedigree of those behind and in front of the camera, the excellent quality of the film is readily apparent.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the film’s inclusion of sexualized nudity and sex scenes, it uses the proverbial tools of the oppressor (pornographic content that demeans its participants) to point out the very oppression it critiques.

That is the truth, inconvenient though it may be. It is a truth overlooked by Ridley Scott and his team.

“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men.”

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He has been blogging at capstewart.com since 2006.

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