The Violence of the Gift in The Last Duel

The French continental philosopher Jacques Derrida thought “the gift is impossible,” since it necessitates reciprocation and thus isn’t free. If a gift doesn’t differ from an economic transaction, it isn’t a gift. This is why we rotate who picks up the check when going out for drinks with a friend, and it’s why we only give holiday presents to those who we expect to return the favor at the appropriate time. If there were ever a hypothetical playground for Derrida’s claim about the impossibility of a gift, it’s Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel

Divided into three perspectival chapters in fourteenth-century France, Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a traitor with futile marriage prospects, espouses the elderly and heirless squire Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon). The two men, with Marguerite at hand, come together and make amends at a mutual friend’s Medieval version of a baby shower. When Jean leaves his estate for battle in Scotland, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) forces himself onto Marguerite and rapes her. Marguerite seeks justice for his crime through her only legal path, her husband. The result concludes with a historical-fictional recreation of the final duel authorized by the Parlement de Paris.

In the first two chapters, Jean and Jacques interpret every action or gift as one that entails a right to compensation. Nothing is an end, everything is a means. Nearly every interaction Jean enters into is opportunistic in this way. His main “gift conflict” concerns his dowry from Marguerite’s traitor father. He believes he’s been cheated part of the property “owed” to him in the marriage transaction—a property given by his feudal lord, Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), to Jacques. It’s his opinion that Jacques, who has recently been given control of Pierre’s finances, owes him for saving his life at the skirmish in Scotland. Jean’s broke, his friend is in charge of the finances of the man he is indebted to, so the math seems simple: Jacques is at liberty to relieve Jean of his debt, and according to Jean, this should be a moral obligation.

Continue reading at the Boston Hassle.

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