Movie Review: The Last Duel
Nobody knows how to dissect the alpha male psyche with as much compassion as the director of Gladiator and Blade Runner, which is why Ridley Scott’s latest epic about an historic rivalry between two French heroes of yore has as much blood and guts as it does heart.
The Last Duel
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck,
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Running time: 2hrs 32 mins
By Katherine Monk
You can feel the chill in your bones first. Images of snow covering a medieval French landscape are juxtaposed with interior scenes featuring two different naked bodies getting dressed. There’s something ritualistic about the donning of each garment, something icy in the mood. The scenes continue in turn, slowly revealing the frozen white arena, and a gathering group of gold-laden onlookers surrounded by a larger, motley mob. Two men appear, and within seconds, you realize Ridley Scott wasn’t going to waste any time getting to the title scene. This is the beginning of The Last Duel.
The opening credits tell us it is based on a true story. Fortunately, for most people without a thorough knowledge of French history circa 1386, we won’t know the ending until the story is told three times over.
A triple credit on the screenplay from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) offers three takes on the events leading to the ultimate denouement. The first one we hear is from the de facto protagonist, Jean de Carrouges, played by a fit, grizzled and decidedly daunting Matt Damon.
We flash back to a battle scene with the Scots, where head games lead to severed heads and a blood-soaked introduction to our two rivals. De Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are fighting for the same side, and find camaraderie in the moment, but thanks to the opening sequence, we know their friendship forged in arms is already doomed.
Scott finds his best moments by showcasing the mental jousting that accompanies all the expected blood and guts. Men have their own code, and unlike the one governing more covert female behaviors, it tends to frown on Brutus-style backstabbing. It craves direct confrontation, and so the dance for manly satisfaction fittingly begins from the perspective of the man who successfully sued for justice, and earned the right to kill his nemesis, or die for his cause.
De Carrouges’s list of snubs and sneers at the hands of the king’s cousin, Pierre (Affleck), was already long, and he blamed his old friend, and close advisor to to the glittering royal, Le Gris, for most of his troubles. His old pal wasn’t being all that helpful with his petitions for land, but things got personal when Le Gris reportedly raped his wife.
One day, while de Carrouges was away defending his king, his wife was alone when Le Gris paid a visit. After forcing his way into the house under false pretenses, he forced himself on Marguerite — then completely denied the character of the event, saying the intercourse was consensual.
The assault is where Scott turns the screw of the story, changing perspectives — and starting the whole story over again from Le Gris’s point of view. This chunk of the narrative is penned by Ben Affleck, and it offers the actor plenty of room to strut his stuff alongside the ever-charismatic Driver. Using his unique gift for narrowing his brow into a facial cow catcher, Driver plows through the surrounding characters, ensuring Jacques Le Gris emerges as a skilled, but offensively vain, warrior with an engorged ego and a girlish love of gossip.
Because Driver has the uncanny ability to remain somewhat likeable regardless of how big a douchebag he’s playing, Le Gris becomes the moral grey area — the mushy rational pedestal to justify murder in the name of honour. After all, he and de Carrouges will battle to the end, but does it feel right? Will the bloodletting result in catharsis, or simply more tragedy? The question is impossible to answer until we get the final installment, told from Marguerite’s perspective.
Because Driver has the uncanny ability to remain somewhat likeable regardless of how big a douchebag he’s playing, Le Gris becomes the moral grey area — the mushy rational pedestal to justify murder in the name of honour.
We learn her mere allegation against Le Gris was enough to merit the death penalty should it be proven false, and the only way she could prove her innocence was if Le Gris fell in battle — proving God sided with her righteousness, sparing her from a ritual burning at the stake. This part of the screenplay, penned by Holofcener, picks up all the masculine actions and their consequences, then shows how they rain down on the women around them. Pelted by events they had no control over, the women are left to dodge the hailstones of judgment from the court, their peers and particularly their supposed female friends — who inevitably chose the ivory shiv over loyalty, love and compassion.
Comer brings so much nuance to each iteration of the story, that a viewer could enjoy herself just watching the actor’s subtle turns, and how Comer can translate a single glance into a maze of fear and longing. The same is also true for the male performers, but their task isn’t quite as delicate. Each one gets to narrate himself as the hero of his own tale, and become the savior of the dishonored lady fair, but for Marguerite, heroism is a lofty abstract — a glittering grail of meaning that will remain beyond her grasp as a result of her sex.
Comer brings so much nuance to each iteration of the story, that a viewer could enjoy herself just watching the actor’s subtle turns, and how Comer can translate a single glance into a maze of fear and longing.
Women have no power in this political reality. They are possessions, a means to acquire land and produce heirs, little more. So while the first two chunks of the story, told from a male point of view, affirm narrative norms and deliver notions of manly heroism that audiences have come to expect from the man behind Gladiator, Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down, it’s the last slice of storytelling from the female view that gives the movie its emotional thrust.
So starkly different from the previous two iterations, the last chapter functions like a feminist call to arms — an unbearable reminder that women are still risking their social standing, if not their lives, to speak truth about sexual assault. So while The Last Duel may detail events that occurred 650 years ago, thanks to Scott and his gifted cast, the movie speaks directly to our moment in time and the epic dangers that arise when you’re cavalier with truth.
THE EX-PRESS, October 15, 2021