The Last Duel
Matt Damon, Adam Driver and 'Killing Eve' star Jodie Comer recreate medieval history in this weighty and savage drama from Ridley Scott.
A grim historical drama that recreates France's final instance of trial by combat, The Last Duel can't be described as fun. It hinges upon the rape of Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Free Guy), wife of knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, Ford v Ferrari), by his ex-friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, Annette) — aka the event that sparked the joust — so that term will obviously never apply. Instead, the movie is exquisite in its 14th-century period staging. After a slightly slow start, it's as involving and affecting as it is weighty and savage, too. When the titular battle takes place, it's ferocious and vivid. And with a #MeToo spirit, the film heartbreakingly hammers home how poorly women were regarded — the rape is considered a crime against Carrouges' property rather than against Marguerite herself — making it an expectedly sombre affair from start to finish.
The Last Duel must've been fun to make from a creative standpoint, however. Damon sports a shocking mullet, and Ben Affleck (The Way Back) dons a ridiculous blonde mop while hamming up every scene he's in (and demanding that Driver drop his pants), although that isn't why. Again, the brutal events seen don't earn that term, but teasing out Marguerite, Carrouges and Le Gris' varying perspectives is fascinating. Director Ridley Scott (All the Money in the World) and his screenwriters — Good Will Hunting Oscar-winners Damon and Affleck, plus acclaimed filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) — have clearly seen Rashomon, the on-screen benchmark in using clashing viewpoints. In their "he said, he said, she said" tale, journeying in the iconic Japanese film's footsteps proves captivating. It must've been an enjoyable challenge for its cast, too, terrible hairstyles and all; as moments repeat, so much of the movie's potency stems from minuscule differences in tone, angle, emphasis and physicality.
"The truth according to Jean de Carrouges" proclaims The Last Duel's first chapter, adapting Eric Jager's 2004 book of the same name in the process. (Le Gris and Marguerite's segments, following in that order, receive the same introduction.) Even in his own instalment, Damon plays Carrouges as a scowling and serious soldier, and as petulant and entitled. He's also a victim in his own head. That attitude only grows as Le Gris finds favour with Count Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck), cousin to teenage King Charles VI (Alex Lawther, The Translators), and starts collecting his debts — including Carrouges' own. And when the knight marries the beautiful and well-educated Marguerite, it's purely a transaction. It also deepens his acrimony towards Le Gris long before the rape, after land promised in the dowry ends up in his former pal's hands via the smarmy Pierre.
Still, Carrouges is instantly willing to fight when he hears about the sexual assault. That said, it's also just another battle against Le Gris and the Count, after taking them to court and the King over their property squabble. In Le Gris' chapter, where Driver broods with an intensity that's fierce even for him, Carrouges' joylessness and pettiness is given even more flesh. Also explored here: the Count's hedonism, the ambition and greed driving the opportunistic Le Gris, and the fixation he develops with Marguerite. Scott ensures that the rape lands like the horror it is, too, leaving no doubt of its force and coercion despite Le Gris' claims otherwise.
When Marguerite's turn comes, the words "the truth" linger for a few seconds longer; what follows is the most nuanced and best third of the film, with immense thanks to Holofcener and Comer. The Last Duel is often blunt movie, but there's a wealth of subtlety to this chapter — and a world of nuance in Marguerite's struggles in general and after her attack at Le Gris' hands. Holofcener doesn't rely upon big speeches, and Comer doesn't trade in big feelings. In fact, they're both economical and poignant, conveying exactly what they need to in as precise a way as possible. Both recognise that the situation, and all that Marguerite endures, is inherently abhorrent and distressing, and let those emotions radiate organically rather than with overstressed compulsion.
The film's structure helps enormously, of course. After showing Carrouges glower and pout, and Le Gris pair charm with manipulation, The Last Duel makes its allegiance to Marguerite plain. That happens from the outset, actually, with the film knowingly arriving in a world where gender equality is still far from the status quo. That's why all those tiny tweaks over the three chapters couldn't be savvier or more engaging. Everyone is always the hero of their own story, but The Last Duel commits that idea to film by showing what it means in such horrendous circumstances — a life-and-death matter for Marguerite, Carrouges and Le Gris alike. This is a movie about power that examines how it manifests in broad, societal and overarching ways as well as on an everyday and intimate basis, all through its trio of perspectives.
The Last Duel releases 44 years after Scott debuted with 1977's The Duellists. That nice bit of lexical symmetry is also a reminder that history and conflict have long been in his wheelhouse. As his second movie illustrated — that'd be Alien — he's similarly no stranger to tales of female survival in unforgiving conditions. Plus in Blade Runner, his third film, Scott showed his talent for getting contemplative via spectacular imagery. Both opening and closing The Last Duel, the eponymous joust is firmly a spectacle here. Visceral, exciting, tense and thrilling, it's shot and staged with rhythm, flair, grit, gore and an edge-of-your-seat level of anxiety. But this Gladiator-topping scene would ring empty if almost everything around it — not just within it — wasn't so piercing. Come for vain and selfish men brawling on horseback, stay for a compelling interrogation of the kind of world that sees them as its leaders while constantly casting women aside.
Image: Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.