The Last Duel (2021)
The true story of a woman who defied a nation and made history.
All other considerations aside, Ridley Scott’s work ethic should shame us all. The 83-year-old filmmaker has two features coming out this year: House of Gucci, which once again sees him exploring areas of wealth and privilege as he did in All the Money in the World (2017), and The Last Duel, in cinemas at the time of writing, which sees him return to the historical epics he loves — and areas of wealth and privilege. It’s a Ridley twofer.
Based on the 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager (which I am currently about a third of the way through), The Last Duel tells the true (and yeah, pretty accurate based on my research so far) story of the last judicial duel in France, which took place in 1383, a practice whereby an accuser, having exhausted all other legal avenues, might win out by challenging a defendant to trial by combat — last man standing is right by God, and the loser is generally dead.
The accuser, in this case, is brutish but valorous (for a certain value thereof) knight Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), whose wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), has been raped by Jean’s frenemy, the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Jacques is a favorite of Jean’s liege lord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), and so Jean, having found no satisfaction at the local level, takes his case all the way to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). After a remarkable amount of legal maneuvering that takes into account all manner of concerns such as property, inheritance, fealty, and religion, the stage is set for the titular battle. If Jean wins, he’ll be vindicated. If he loses, well, see above. And as for Marguerite? Having given testimony against Jacques, she’ll be burned alive for giving false witness. The stakes (and the stake) are high.
Which does not seem to faze Jean; he’s here to reclaim his honor after years of coming off second best to Jacques in courtly politicking; if Marguerite burns, he’ll be too dead to notice. Jacques, for his part, never denies congress with Marguerite, saying that she put up “the usual protestations” before succumbing to his standard seduction technique. As viewers, we’re left in no doubt that the rape happened, but the film’s interest lies in how it is characterized from various viewpoints.
It does this by dividing the film into three chapters, the first from Jean’s point of view, the second from Jacques’, the third — heavily privileged as the truth — from Marguerite’s. The go-to inspiration here is Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, which also looked at a crime from multiple subjective viewpoints. In The Last Duel, it’s fascinating to see how different characters view the events, the other people involved, and themselves. In Jean’s chapter, he’s a brave and noble soldier of the King brought low by court treachery and the rape of his beloved wife by a former friend. In Jacques’, Jean is an ignorant and crude campaigner whose lack of grace has cost him his position and who is not worthy of the beautiful Marguerite, while Jacques’ sees himself as a debonaire courtier.
And when we finally get to Marguerite’s take, we see that Jean’s view of Jacques is accurate, and Jacques view of Jean is accurate, and Marguerite is caught in the middle, a valuable playing piece on a complex gameboard who was married to Jean to cement both his fortunes and her family’s, who was raped by Jacques because he coveted her and knew he could get away with it, and whose life is at risk because her quest for justice must invoke her husband’s rage and jealousy. While Marguerite wants Jacques to pay for his crimes, Jean is furious that his wife — his property — has been violated. We get the scene where she tells him about the attack from both his and her point of view, and the difference is stark.
I’ve seen The Last Duel dismissed as a bro film in various quarters, which strikes me as lamentably reductive at best and willfully ignorant at worst. The film may lack subtlety — there’s a bit of business about a valuable mare whose worth is predicated on her breeding ability, in case we missed the whole thrust of the film — but in a time when works like Parasite (2019) and Squid Game (2021) are easily (or perhaps deliberately — who can say?) misinterpreted, having clear and obvious themes is no bad thing, especially when you’re doing work that is both ambitious and meant to be popular. If we want lessons and ideas propagated through the culture and modeled in our media, maybe obfuscating them is not the smartest move in the playbook. I’m reminded of how Ad Astra (2019), a fine film, was mocked for being about “Daddy issues in space,” when to me it was clear that film was critiquing the extremely limited archetype of stolid masculinity that Pitt’s character had lashed himself to (full review here, if you’re interested).
The Last Duel is strongly anti-patriarchal, deeply invested in critiquing a system in which women are effectively chattel, used to shore up alliances, transfer wealth, and propagate power, their own selfhood and agency barely a consideration. I’m not sure what Scott’s left bona fides look like these days, and he’s certainly offered some textbook Old White Guy brainfarts in the past, but he also made Thelma and Louise (1991), a textbook feminist film (but still, yes, directed by a dude — let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good). I will say that Scott seems wholly cognizant of the themes he wants to explore here, and he does so fully within the constraints of the narrative.
And let’s make no bones about it: Scott is one of the great cinematic craftsmen of his time. His gift for building immersive, layered, far-reaching screen worlds is unsurpassed; maybe Terry Gilliam comes close on his good days, and Wes Anderson’s dollhouse miniature movies just about arrive at the same place from a different starting point, but Scott excels at pulling together onscreen universes that feel complete, holistic, lived-in, tactile.
It’s not realism, strictly speaking; realism is just a label on one single fader knob on the cinematic mixing desk, and you move that thing up and down depending on where you want that particular element to sit in the mix. Historical accuracy is just one factor, and not the most important (the half-visors on Jean and Jacques’ helmets may not be period accurate, but they let us see the actors’ faces, and if you don’t understand why that is key, we may be wasting our time here). But what it is, is a sense of how people live in this world, even if that world is wholly speculative. If you can present how people live, you can communicate how they think, and if you can do that, we can see themes play out through their actions in the context of their universe. The production design, costumes, sets, locations, and all that, even the smoke he loves to layer in and his lighting choices, are not separate or discrete from the narrative — all that stuff is not just window dressing. It’s working to tell us about a place, and a people, and the ideology that drives them. A lot of historical films are largely divorced from the worldview of the time they’re theoretically depicting; Scott, at his best, connects historical worldviews with modern concerns and themes in a way that services both and compromises neither, and he does it at every level of the filmmaking process. He makes it look easy, but if it was easy, everyone could do it.
He also makes it entertaining. The Last Duel doesn’t exactly gallop along; we revisit the same events three times, and because of that, we see a brutal rape twice, and if that’s not going to work for you, that’s fine. Putting aside the question of whether a movie centered on a rape should be entertaining for a later, longer essay (maybe, but I would like to map out some thoughts on how we enjoy the depiction of awful things), Scott understands that any messaging inherent in your work will only reach people who actually watch the thing. We get a number of superbly mounted action set pieces, including the titular fight, which is actually toned down from the historical accounts I’ve read (if anyone’s listening, I, at least, would like to see a horse’s head get cut clean off, if only for the novelty value).
It’s also very funny — not inappropriately, and often quite blackly, but frequently. Yes, for sure, there’s a certain comedy value in Matt ‘n’ Ben sporting those weird-looking medieval haircuts, and the tweets did fly thick and fast when the trailer dropped, but contextually, within the world Scott presents, they’re fine. As the decadent Count Pierre, Ben Affleck gets the lion’s share of the laughs; he’s just so frustrated with the oafish Jean and clearly enjoying his power so much and the pleasures being landed gentry can afford him, and this whole affair is just so dreary. Elsewhere the humor comes from the contrast between how Jean and Jacques see themselves and how they see each other, and the very final title card of the film is a cackle. The use of humor never undercuts the essential drama of the story, but it leavens it without compromising the stakes.
Speaking of Matt ‘n’ Ben, they, of course, originated the script — their first together since 1997’s Good Will Hunting — with Nicole Holofcener, who scored a writing Oscar for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, brought in to add some estrogen to the mix. The question of authorship here is an interesting one, and I might posit — without being married to the idea — that Damon and Affleck’s original take may have been more a straightforward rivalry between the two principal male characters (Affleck was slated to play Jacques but stepped back into the supporting role of Count Pierre) before Holofcener became involved and Scott took a hand in further shaping the script. It’s certainly not as simple (and dumb) as the idea of Holofcener handling the third chapter; the themes of the film are well-integrated throughout.
So, I guess it’s a good thing we have auteur theory to fall back on, so we can default to calling The Last Duel a Ridley Scott film and a good one — certainly one of the better offerings of his late-career. It’s not his last film, but there would be a certain enjoyable symmetry in his feature-making career beginning with 1977’s The Duellists and ending with The Last Duel. It can be tough being a fan of aging artists, who too often diminish in the final bars of their working careers, falling into self-parody or irrelevancy. We should be grateful then that Scott is still creating art of this caliber to challenge, enthrall and entertain us. Are you not entertained?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson