The Last Duel

The Last Duel is an unexpected triumph

The Good Will Hunting boys team up with Ridley Scott for a surprisingly nuanced medieval take on #MeToo.

While #MeToo is by no means the first significant social movement to liberate women of inequality and abuse in the workplace, it’s obvious why critics have been quick to discuss Ridley Scott’s latest film in that context. The Last Duel is set in 14th century France, but it echoes major cultural conversations around consent and credibility. Its Rashomon-like structure shows us three perspectives of the same story, leading to the rape of one of the characters. The narrative reveals the obstacles in getting at the truth in a society that does not equally value all its citizens’ personhood. As we all imagine ourselves the heroes of our own stories, the waters are muddied from the onset, as the two principal male characters conceive reality based on reductive assumptions about autonomy and truth.

The Last Duel Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck in The Last Duel

After a cold open setting up a duel, the script by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener almost immediately jumps into the first “version” of truth from Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon). Arguably the weakest section, this part of the film speeds through large swaths of time as exposition setting up both character and setting. As a viewer, it’s a bit of a slog, in no small part because it feels like de Carrouges has been set up as a noble and heroic figure. His binary way of thinking and overt seriousness are difficult to reconcile with the celebratory tone of the film. His rigid personality often seems at odds with his absurd haircut, which, even in the context of a movie that features a Dyonisian Affleck with white-bleach blond hair (he’s delightful btw), sticks out as a truly “out there” choice. He’s not only unlikeable as a screen presence — he’s a bit of a stick in the mud.

But there’s cleverness at work here. As we transition into a different version of the truth, this time Jacques le Gris’s (Adam Driver) perspective, we realize that de Carrouges cannot disguise his obvious faults even in his own reality. For a film written by and starring so many Hollywood stars, there’s something refreshing in how the script and the filmmaking don’t shy from unflattering perspectives of its main cast, painting them as sullen and callous, cruel and uninteresting. It’s surprisingly daring for such a large American production because it negates more accessible modes of identification that would make the material softer and more palatable. 

The Last Duel Jodie Comer
Jodie Comer in The Last Duel

By the time we move into the third and final section, the perspective of Marguerite (Jodie Comer), we feel we understand her point of view quite well. Yet, this pivot recalibrates everything we know once again. It unveils the minutia of her pains and pleasures. It opens up the world beyond the realm of knightly dinner tables, frigid countrysides and the public domain of men into something that, on the one hand, is more private and domestic but also encompasses the landscapes of domesticity beyond the castle walls, like the markets and shops. Through the film’s structure, we understand how female characters are often underwritten or not written at all. The writing of Marguerite’s section underlines the fact that her “domestic” life is not only caught up in unseen pressures from the perspective of the men. Still, it consists of labour, work and sacrifice that not only goes unappreciated but is invisible to the men around her.

In this sense, Ridley Scott’s talent as a filmmaker working in the realm of the epic enhances the cinematic experience. Like many of his films, The Last Duel has that dull grey look, but the darkness leads to some period verisimilitude. Beyond that, though, the world feels so populated and alive. Dialogue and exposition scenes often take place in bustling surroundings where people are living and working around them. There’s an almost constant movement of people and animals, lending the frame life in a way that CGI-heavy film experiences seem incapable of achieving. 

The Last Duel Adam Driver Matt Damon
Matt Damon and Adam Driver in The Last Duel

The film, however, is not without its flaws. Not all the rehashing of information from one perspective to another is not handled gracefully, and despite the clever “twist” that we’re not actually meant to be rooting for Jean de Carrouges, his section particularly feels long and bogged down, especially at first. Running at 153 minutes, it’s worth remembering that Kurosawa’s Rashomon was 80. There were certainly more efficient ways of translating the necessary information about his circumstance and personality than what was done, and the film suffers for it. 

And yet, the overall experience is invigorating and unexpected. The film balances a careful tone where despite failures of character and sexually-motivated violence, it still allows the characters’ subjectivity to cast themselves in a “positive light.” For audience members uninterested in seeing rape on screen, this film likely won’t be for you, but the framing and reframing of that scene happen to be particularly interesting. The first time around, it’s awful and horrifying, and despite his proclamations otherwise, we have a sense through performance and action that the character knows it. The cleverness of the script allows the character to write their own stories and undermine their interpretation of events. Achieving this result onscreen requires nuance in both performance and filmmaking that is quite challenging to pull off effectively. 

It’s been a minute since Ridley Scott has been reliably good as a filmmaker, so this film counts as a pleasant and truly unexpected surprise.

The Last Duel opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 15.

The Last Duel, directed by Ridley Scott

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