By Alex Cox
The Last Duel is a Ridley Scott directed historical action and drama, based on the book of the same name by Eric Jager, itself based on the last officially recognised judicial duel fought in France during the 14th century. The plot itself is simple, the Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) duels squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) over the accusation that some months earlier Le Gris raped Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the wife of Jean de Carrouges.
Despite being a historical drama, The Last Duel is a very modern movie. Its tale of the consequences of rape clearly maps onto the #MeToo movement. This has led to some questions over the fact that this project was led by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both having been implicated to a degree in the #MeToo movement, with Affleck, in particular, admitting to inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues. There are no easy ways to address this, apart from stating the fact that the film is an intelligent commentary on these issues and that Damon and Affleck are very self-aware of their past in the way they present and are presented in the film.
The story is told through the different viewpoints of the principal characters in a Rashomon-esque way. Thus, the narrative is told three times over, sometimes overlapping but largely building depth to these characters, allowing exploration as to how they view, and in the case of the male roles, justify their own actions. To build these distinct viewpoints three different writers were put in charge of each part with Damon and Affleck writing the males perspectives and writer/director Nicole Holofcener brought in to tackle the role of Marguerite.
This narrative structure is not, however, meant to interrogate the truth of the events presented, as it is made quite clear that the perspective of Marguerite is the only truthful narrative of the events shown. This structure instead brings to the fore the power that men have over women to shape narratives and events, despite the actual truth of such events. That Marguerite challenges this is admirable, yet is also shown as not without potential disaster. There is an allusion to the fact that in order to challenge a patriarchal system of justice, victims must often put themselves at risk.
These thematic considerations facilitated by its unique structure are important to the film, but would not work without a solid script, acting, and directing. Thankfully all these criteria are met in spades. The film occupies itself largely with telling the backstory behind the duel, with the titled duel only showing at the end of the 2-and-a-half-hour runtime. While this carries the risk of leaving the audience impatient, the drama leading to the action of the duel is the real heart of the movie.
Jodie Comer makes the movie as Marguerite, bringing intelligence and depth of feeling largely lacking in the rest of the characters. Damon brings rugged selfishness to his role, while Driver perfectly sells the arrogance and cruel charisma of the detestable Le Gris. Affleck also provides a highlight in a quite bizarre performance as the sleazy Count Pierre for whom Le Gris works for.
All this is done under the steady direction of Ridley Scott who allows the characters time to develop, yet has also created some thrilling action scenes including one of the most satisfying portrayals of single combat in recent memory.
Despite this, a valid criticism of his direction could be levelled at the decision to show a particularly graphic scene twice at some length. While no doubt done to shock the audience with the violence of the act, which it does, this is perhaps an instance that would have benefitted from ‘the female gaze’ in its presentation.
It is almost a shame that the film is as good as it is then, as it has had an utterly miserable run at the box office, barely bringing in $18 million on a $100 million budget. It is certainly a difficult film to market and cinema-going is still hampered worldwide by covid, especially among older audiences to whom this film is targeted towards. Yet, that a big-budget medieval epic from Ridley Scott using a well-known cast completely bombed is a sad marker for the fate of independent stories and filmmakers in Hollywood outside the framework of cinematic universes or niche small-budget films.
Regardless, for those still looking for intelligent, well-made, and exciting films, The Last Duel might just be your next favourite film.
Image Credits: Canburak via Flikr