A historical drama about two men duelling to determine the veracity of a woman’s rape in 14th century France doesn’t, at first glance, scream “feminism.”
But in the deft hands of “Alien” director Ridley Scott, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” scribe Nicole Holofcener and “Free Guy” star Jodie Comer, the woman in question — a medieval noble called Marguerite de Carrouges — is given new agency in the trio’s latest film, “The Last Duel.” Comer, who will attend the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival next week, plays Marguerite in the Walt Disney Studios production.
Based on a true story and co-written by Holofcener, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (the first time the two actors have worked on a script together since “Good Will Hunting”), “The Last Duel” tells the true story of Marguerite’s sexual assault and its aftermath, in which she risks being burned at the stake by confiding in her husband Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon).
Jean plans to avenge her — and restore his family’s honor — by challenging the perpetrator (Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris) to a state-sponsored trial by combat. Their battle, which they believed would, via God’s hand, determine whether or not Marguerite is lying, turned out to be the last lawful duel under French law.
“I think, for me, what was the most interesting [thing] about this script, first and foremost, was the opportunity to give this woman a voice,” Comer tells Variety ahead of her Venice debut. “I think we have a tendency when we see these kind of stories announced, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s going to be the wife; this is about the men and they’re fighting.’ And everyone has these preconceived ideas about a place which a woman holds within these stories. And so it was great to challenge that, you know?”
Given the film’s central theme — about believing a woman who has been raped — did she see any parallels with the #MeToo movement? “What strikes me the most, and is probably the most upsetting part about this story, is that it is so relevant in today’s society and I think that you can see that would have been the case for every decade that’s gone by,” she says.
The film is written from each of the three protagonists’ perspectives, with some scenes subtly tweaked and repeated to represent the divergences in each character’s point of view. “I think what was probably one of the most difficult things for me, when filming — but also is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film — is I really have to lean into the other characters’ perspectives in order for the story to work in a truthful way,” Comer says. “There’s repetition of a few scenes. The dialogue is the exact same but I have to act out the scene with a different kind of motivation and emotion.”
Working with Scott, who is responsible for some of cinema’s most empowering female characters, from “Alien’s” Ripley to Thelma and Louise, was a “dream come true,” says Comer. “He has such a vision and his attention to detail is incredible.” One of Scott’s techniques, she says, is to shoot a scene with four or five cameras simultaneously, “which is just unheard of. I felt incredibly spoiled, actually.”
“Afterwards, I remember Matt saying, you are going to realize very quickly how spoiled we are, when working with Ridley,” she recalls. “Because [the multiple cameras] mean everyone’s just on the ball at the exact same moment. There’s no time to slack or to save your energy for when the camera turns around on you. It kind of engages everyone in a way in which I’d never experienced.” The method also meant some of the more emotionally heavy scenes could be wrapped in just two or three takes.
Such is her delight at working with Scott, Comer has already signed up for his next project, another French historical drama called “Kitbag,” which begins shooting in the new year. Comer will play Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine opposite Joaquin Phoenix as the 19th century emperor.
Despite her segue into cinema, Comer, who recently wowed audiences alongside Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy,” will be back on the small screen in two upcoming projects: U.K. broadcaster Channel 4’s “Help,” a British drama about how the pandemic took hold in senior care homes, and the highly anticipated fourth and final season of “Killing Eve.”
How is Comer navigating between film and television? “I’m just trying to listen to what it is that I’m drawn to,” she says. “The script itself is really what drives me to make a decision. And then of course, the team who are executing it is another thing that’s hugely important. I just have to be provoked by an emotion and feel like a story is worth telling or is going to challenge me in a new way.”
She won’t comment, however, on whether any rumored “Killing Eve” spin-offs are in the works (“I don’t really know what the future holds,” she demurs) or if the hotly tipped “Free Guy 2” has been made official. “I’m definitely not someone who is included in those very grown-up conversations, so I don’t know,” says Comer. “But I think we would all just jump at the chance to be able to get together.”
For now, Comer’s got the best of both worlds: she’s currently shooting the final block of “Killing Eve” in the U.K., in between which she’s flying to Italy for her first ever film festival. The prospect of Venice, she reveals, is both exciting and terrifying. “It’s something I’ve seen every year and just thought, ‘Wow, how cool and impressive is that,’” she says. “So the fact that I’m going to be there feels so surreal. And then also that we’re going to sit down with an audience and watch it with them is kind of daunting.”
Her “Last Duel” co-star, Adam Driver, famously refuses to watch himself on screen. Does Comer have similar reservations? “I used to hate it, now I’m too curious,” she says. “I do love seeing [the film] in its final form and just kind of appreciating what everyone’s put into it.
“But sometimes it’s tricky,” she adds. “I think you have to get over yourself — well, I did. I had to get over just watching myself and looking at what my face is doing and being critical of how I look.”
“It’s different watching it on your own in your house but… I don’t know,” she muses. “Being in the theater with that many other people? I’ll let you know how that one goes.”