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How writer Nicole Holofcener told the true tale of 'The Last Duel'


JODIE COMER: (As Marguerite de Carrouges) You knew what would happen to me should you lose this duel. You knew, and you didn't tell me.

MATT DAMON: (As Sir Jean de Carrouges) God will not punish those who tell the truth.

COMER: (As Marguerite de Carrouges) My fate and our child's fate will be written not by God's will but by which old man will tire first.


Truth is at the center of the new medieval movie "The Last Duel," starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. And a warning to listeners - this story features a rape, which we will discuss in this interview. Told in three chapters from the perspective of each of their characters, we follow knight Jean de Carrouges as he fights for the honor of his wife, Marguerite, who alleges his former friend and rival Jacques Le Gris of raping her when she was alone at home. It's set in the Middle Ages. It's an ancient #MeToo story, a time when rape wasn't a crime against a woman but instead against the property of a man. But Marguerite stands her ground and would rather face burning to death than lie about what happened.

Oscar-nominated Nicole Holofcener co-wrote the script, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.

NICOLE HOLOFCENER: Hi. Nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is wonderful to have you. You have done movies like "Enough Said" and "Friends With Money." You're actually known sort of for more indie movies. And you've said you were quite surprised when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also star in the movie, approached you to write the script.

HOLOFCENER: Yes, I was really surprised. I got an email from Ben. And you know, I should find it because I think it did say - do you want to write a sword fight movie with us? And I was, like, ha ha ha, very funny. So obviously, I responded. And they told me it was for real, and I said that I'm really busy. And Ben said, oh, it's a month-long job. That's it. You just got to write 30 pages. And two years later, here I am.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). I mean, the movie is based on a true story, as written in the book "The Last Duel: A True Story Of Trial By Combat In Medieval France." It's interesting that Ben Affleck said it was going to be a sword fight movie because this is not what it is. How did you sort of use that book for your writing and the conceit of the film?

HOLOFCENER: Well, the book was filled with lots of details, mainly about the men and the facts of the courtroom and what happened and the duel but not that much about Marguerite, except that she spoke out. So I started there and then tried to give this woman a life and a personality and qualities that are not recorded.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you chose to tell the story in three different ways. As I mentioned, we see it through the perspectives of the three protagonists. How did you know which story to start with first? Because we first hear from Jean de Carrouges, played by Matt Damon. Then we follow Jacques Le Gris's perception of the events. And then, of course, we end with Marguerite.

HOLOFCENER: Well, Matt and Ben, before they came to me, decided to tell it in this way. And that's why they came to me. I think they were starting to write the two parts of the fellas, and then they realized they would have to write Marguerite's section. And they said, we shouldn't write Marguerite's section. We're not women. And I think, you know, a woman would do a lot better job. And, of course, they're right. And lucky me, they asked me to do it with them. So it was already set up in that way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are two very difficult rape scenes in the movie, one through the perspective of Jacques Le Gris and then, of course, the other one in the perspective of Marguerite. How did you conceptualize those two quite different scenes?

HOLOFCENER: Well, we knew we didn't want nudity, and we knew that the difference between the two scenes had to be really, really subtle because Jacques Le Gris did not think he raped Marguerite. He thought he was in love with her. And he thought she protested, you know, mildly because she's a woman, and that's what, you know, ladies did. And so, you know, we'd written it so that the dialogue is exactly the same in each scene, but her response is slightly different. Her response in Le Gris's eyes was more flirtatious. She seemed almost kind of into it and like she was playing a game. And when they're having sex - or he is raping her - she looks a lot more like she's enjoying it. So - but it's all really, really subtle. And that's, you know, a great performance by Jodie.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, let me just say I thought it was a really masterful film in getting at this idea of perspectives. I guess some people may leave the theater, though, wondering if there is ever truth, or is it all perspective? I mean, obviously, Marguerite was telling the truth, and this thing did happen. But I'm wondering what the overall message of seeing these stories through these different eyes is.

HOLOFCENER: Well, everybody is a hero in their own story, and that's really what it's about. I mean, Jean de Carrouges thinks he's this brave warrior who's kind to his lovely, young wife. And, you know, when she tells him she was raped, he says, are you telling the truth? She says yes. And he hugs her and tells her he's going to protect her. But in her version, which is her memory and her truth and the truth, you know, he practically strangled her. And in those times, he could have killed her right then and there and, you know, been applauded for it.

So in Le Gris's story, you know, he thinks this - every woman wants him. He's used to these orgies where these women run around, and they play. And he even says in the orgy scene, you know, something like, if you run, I'll only chase you. And he says the same thing to Marguerite, kind of thinking, like, this is how it goes. He gets what he wants and that she's going to eventually enjoy it. So, you know, everybody sees the truth their own way, but when something factual, like a violent rape, happens, there's no perspective. It happened. And whatever deluded man thinks otherwise, it's still the truth that it happened.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's writer Nicole Holofcener. She is a director and writer of many movies, and her new film is "The Last Duel." It is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now. Thank you very much.

HOLOFCENER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 16, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the original version of this page, Nicole Holofcener's last name was misspelled as Holfecesner.

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