Movie Review: ‘The Last Duel’
Plot: Based on the book by Eric Jager, acclaimed director Ridley Scott’s latest tells the true story of the events leading up to the last official trial by combat in medieval France. When Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) accuses wealthy squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, her husband Jean (Matt Damon) brings a petition before his liege lord Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck). After d’Alencon roundly rejects Jean de Carrouges petition, de Carrouges appeals directly to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) demanding a duel to the death. What follows is a riveting exploration of the nature of truth, agency, and the lies we tell ourselves.
Review: “There’s your side, my side, and the truth.” That cliched adage echoed like an insistent refrain inside my mind as Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel played out on the big screen. While ostensibly a medieval epic (and believe me it is EPIC), the pageantry, dancing, battles, and life in the French court are all just window dressing. What The Last Duel actually represents is a searing dissertation on truth, female agency, and the lies men tell themselves. Whereas Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven served as excellent social commentary on Christian/Islamic relations in a post-9/11 world, The Last Duel examines gender and sexual power dynamics in a post #MeToo world. The results are just as spectacular, with The Last Duel being Scott’s best film The Martian.
The film itself has a three-chapter structure, with each chapter representing the historical events from the viewpoint of a specific character. Chapters one and two represent Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris respectively, with the concluding chapter coming from Marguerite’s perspective. Yes, this is the first writing team up between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in almost twenty-five years, but the duo made the smart decision to expand to a trio, bringing in Nicole Holofcener to write the female portion. The result is a simply brilliant screenplay that highlights the sometimes nebulous nature of truth.
What strikes me the most is how different each chapter feels and adds a different nuance and texture to the story. Jean de Carrouges’ tale presents him as put-upon knight, continually slighted by other lords and ladies, and betrayed by his dearest friend Le Gris. Contrastingly, Le Gris’s portion presents de Carrouges as an impetuous buffoon who marries above his station and who Le Gris must constantly defend. Not surprisingly each of the men’s chapters presents them as heroes in their own story with de Carrouges being the essence of chivalry and courtly love and Le Gris as a dashing and intelligent ladies man who miraculously puts Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alencon’s finances in order and gains favor.
It is Marguerite’s chapter that really puts all three renditions into perspective, unambiguously claims Le Gris’ action to be rape, and proclaims her story to be the closest to the truth. Perhaps the reason is because it rightly focuses on the cause of the trial by combat, namely Marguerite’s rape. Jean de Carrouges portion sees the rape as a slight against his honor and a wrong to his name that must be righted. Le Gris’ section wraps the rape in package of knightly love, implying that the sex was consensual and that Marguerite’s accusations as also a slight against Le Gris’ honor. Both male stories share the distinction of making the rape about them.
Holofcener brilliantly gets to the heart of the matter, namely what it was like to be a woman in medieval France. A time where women were treated as property and had no agency over their own bodies. A time when an accusation of rape was often met with scorn and implications that the victim encouraged the attacker. A time when women were asked publicly in court about their sexual predilections to determine the veracity of their statements. A time when despite having just been raped, a woman’s husband can insist on sex that night so that he can placate his own hurt pride and bruised ego. A time when a husband can invoke trial by combat knowing full well that losing means his wife will be burned alive. You can easily see that while this story may be 635 years old, it still feels extremely relevant in 2021.
In addition to the excellent screenwriting, The Last Duel boasts some impressive acting performances. Matt Damon is at the top of his game playing de Carrouges as chivalric and honorable, churlish and petulant, or cold and self-obsessed, depending on the chapter. Adam Driver is just as good if not better as Le Gris. Again, depending on the chapter, he can subservient and honorable, quick witted and irascible, or unrepentant and foppish. Even Ben Affleck brings an anachronistic, bro-ish take to his Count Pierre that somehow works. He’s charming and fun to watch even if his character is morally bankrupt, thoughtless, and revels in debauchery.
Yet it is Jodie Comer’s Marguerite that really stands out. Comer delivers a nuanced and powerhouse performance that ranges from subtle to indomitable. She is smarter and gentler than her male counterparts, quick witted and kind. You really feel for Marguerite’s plight, whether it is suffering public humiliation in the court of King Charles VI, the callous actions of her husband, or the way Le Gris sees her as a toy to possess. When the duel finally commences, we are rooting for Damon’s de Carrouges to win not because we want to see him win, but because we want to see Marguerite survive. I would be shocked if Comer does not receive at least a support actress nomination come Oscar time.
Visually The Last Duel is a masterpiece, with Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography a triumph of the visual medium. Wolski captures the brutal nature of medieval battles and the pageantry of the French court with equal deftness. Ridley Scott utilizes natural lighting effectively throughout. It’s so well done you can practically smell the burning peat and feel the grime of dirt and blood. Harry Gregson-Williams also provides an epic score that I’m still hearing in my head. Oh, and if you feel the duel itself will be a letdown, you needn’t worry. It is just as good as advertised.
The Last Duel is bold, harrowing, brutal, and absolutely captivating from start to finish. Superbly written by Affleck, Damon, and especially Holofcener, this is a socially conscious medieval epic that hits all the right notes. Don’t miss it.
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
The Last Duel: 9/10