The trifurcation is the Rashomon-style narrative, where the same events play out from three different perspectives. The first and most extensive is that of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a knight of some standing during the reign of King Charles VI of France (Alex Lawther) in the late 14th century. Jean’s fortunes are closely tied to that of his sometime friend and sometime rival, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), whose perspective is the second that we see. Between these men, and ostensibly the reason for the eponymous contest, is Marguerite (Jodie Comer), married to Jean and desired by Jacques, and most importantly the owner of the third perspective of the film.
While the plotting meanders through the wider politicking of the French court, the central of the story is Jacques’ rape of Marguerite. More precisely, whether their encounter is rape or consensual. Jacques insists it was consensual because he and Marguerite were in love; Marguerite tells her husband it was rape, who believes her, and this leads to trial by combat between Jean and Jacques. The duel itself, as well as other combat sequences, is as gritty and gory as anything Scott has previously delivered, some scenes echoing the almighty battle at the start of Gladiator. The power plays as well as the trial, where Jean stands before the King and demands justice, are handsomely mounted in terms of production design and costume, evoking a sense of period although this is never entirely convincing. Thankfully no one speaks in a faux French accent, but despite this there is a sense of staginess throughout, rather than a fully realised and inhabited world.
This staginess is furthered by the three chapters of the film not only have different narratives, but also different tones and themes. Jean’s ambition colours his chapter and he and his family fall in and out of favour with the King. His fortunes are reframed as a petulant sense of entitlement during Jacques’ chapter, who gets close to Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) and proves himself more useful than Jean and therefore more favoured. But throughout these chapters, and most prominently in that of Marguerite, we see a story of oppression.
It should not need reiteration, but clearly it does: men are awful and patriarchy is brutish. While this may be even more so in the Middle Ages, much of the treatment of women in the film seems thoroughly contemporary. The most prominent example is when the aptly named Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek) describes rape as effectively a property dispute, since a wife is ‘owned’ by her husband. His dismissive attitude is mirrored by the frivolity of authority – both King Charles and Count Pierre are more interested in recreation than this assault on one of their subjects. Marguerite’s victimhood is repeatedly emphasised, Comer delivering a performance of restrained suffering whether she is facing down Jean’s mother Nicole (Harriet Walter) or her accusers. The central rape is seen twice, which while suitably harrowing is something of a misstep because the footage only varies slightly, allowing for ambiguity when overall the film seems firmly in Marguerite’s camp.
Further aspects of the film do not fit together, resulting in, as noted, a rather incoherent delivery. But this may be the film’s unexpected strength. Narrative and history, especially HIS story – seek to impose order and clarity. Thus do Jean and Jacques impose order on Marguerite, entirely to serve their own interests – public standing in the case of Jean, raw desire in the case of Jacques. Marguerite’s interests, and indeed her life, are of minor concern. But in a modern film, this feels disjunctive and incoherent. Thus, the patriarchal narrative is disrupted and imperfect, just as any oppressive institution must be because of the silenced voices. By bringing in an additional voice that provides discord, the narrative fabric is left rough and incomplete. This is likely an accident on the part of the filmmakers, but it leaves the viewer with an appropriately difficult question to consider: how do we tell stories of the oppressed? Governing institutions insist upon a smooth and neat history, but there is something to be said for a denial of straightforward resolution and an embrace of the contradictory voice.