The Last Duel is Ridley Scott’s newest historical opus. Expanding beyond his pure sword and sandal epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel is concerned with the struggle for truth in a fundamentally unfair world.
The titular duel arises out of the allegation of rape by Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, The Martian, Good Will Hunting) against a squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, Marriage Story, BlacKkKlansman), who allegedly forced himself upon Carrouges’ wife. And that construct is key to so much of the film’s purpose: Carrouges’ wife (an excellent Jodie Comer, Free Guy, TV’s Killing Eve) is merely chattel; rape is not an assault against a woman, it’s a violation of a married man’s property rights. The film is structured around the build to the duel between the two men – God’s will shall dictate who is telling the truth.
In concept, this movie should probably be an absolute slog: a more than two-and-a-half hour medieval period drama about the injustice of society towards women. Yet screenwriters Damon, Ben Affleck (The Way Back, Good Will Hunting), and Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Enough Said) manage to imbue the film’s structure with grandeur, humor, and something very close to profundity about the nature of perspective and truth. Between the prologue and climax – both focused on the duel through a more objective and omniscient lens – the film is built around three chapters: “The Truth” according to each narrator.
The first chapter is from Carrouges perspective. The character views himself, and his reality, as a decent, honorable man constantly put upon by cruel fate. Damon’s performance echoes a stoic Homeric hero, a medieval Hector, successful in battle and kind to his wife. Circumstances and corruption keep encroaching upon his honor, and he’s left with no choice but to try to fight back against an increasingly corrupt society. His chapter is something of a dour hero’s tale, but the perfect encapsulation of how Carrouges would view himself. Who among us is not the hero of his or her own narrative?
The Carrouges story is important for another reason: it makes clear that the ambitions of this film sprawl far beyond the ambit of just one interpersonal conflict. In an era of omnipresent CGI, Ridley Scott puts his practical filmmaking prowess on display with numerous castles, towns, and villages built out of what appear to be largely practical set constructions. Through the lens of Carrouges’ journey towards various battles and conflicts – filmed with Scott’s signature vicious (and viscous) aplomb – the narrative slowly fills the frame of life in medieval France. It cannot escape notice that while Carrouges is incensed over the loss of a prime piece of land, he lacks any awareness of the slow dilapidation of his own homestead. The plight of those beneath him in society, or even those who live on his own lands and tend to his assets, is not something worthy of consideration.
It is overwhelmingly clear that even in his 80s Ridley Scott has lost none of his bombastic prowess. During my screening, I chose to change seats soon after the movie started. I wanted to sit closer to the screen so that Scott’s vision of 1380s France could more easily overwhelm me. From Harry Gregson-William’s (Gone Baby Gone, Mulan) beautiful score to Janty Yates’ (Gladiator, Alien: Covenant) costume design, the film is an audiovisual feast.
The second chapter is from Le Gris’ perspective and it shows an almost overwhelming different view of feudal France. The world viewed through Le Gris’ perspective is one of excess: booze, sex, and, in a meta sense, more unhinged performances. Everyone around Le Gris appears to be in some sort of arch performance piece – his “truth” sees his long time friend Carrouges reduced to a hair-triggered dolt who loses all calm over the most milquetoast slight. Le Gris too sees himself as essentially the ultimate womanizer – a man so attractive that women, including Carrouges’ wife Marguerite, simply cannot help but throw themselves at him. Driver is delightfully slimy in the arc.
All the actors excel in playing these multifarious versions of their characters – in just a moment of screen time it would be instantly clear whose “truth” a viewer is watching from the performances. Special note must be paid here to Ben Affleck. Affleck plays a Count, essentially the regional governor for whose affection Carrouges and Le Gris compete. His performance is something quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a period epic such as this before. Count Pierre d’Alençon is a man who thinks of little else beyond whoring, drinking, and ribald poetry. Affleck’s line readings are almost breathtakingly modern – it is at times as if Chucky Sullivan from Good Will Hunting is doing an impersonation of Stifler from the American Pie series serving as a feudal lord and spiritual mentor to Hunter S. Thompson. I lack the words to adequately convey exactly how strange Affleck’s performance choices are, but I found every single second of his screen time utterly enrapturing. Someday Nicolas Cage will watch this film and nod in approval at the intense insanity of the work here. Ben Affleck is going to win an Oscar for acting eventually, and I cannot help but hope it is for this profoundly strange performance.
The film’s third chapter is Marguerite’s and, as the film makes clear, the closest thing to an unbiased truth the audience will experience. Jodie Comer is luminous and revelatory here. Her performance is garnering awards buzz for good reason – she has a complex, difficult arc to pull off from three competing perspectives. While Ridley Scott is a director I quite adore, his films do not often move me. Here, he seems to recognize what he has in Comer’s performance. Throughout her arc, his lens tightens on her and her immensely expressive face. Marguerite’s climactic emotional moment is brilliantly underplayed and internalized by Comer, and Scott and cinematographer Darius Wolski have the wisdom to leave the camera still for the moment with just enough distance to give Marguerite the privacy of a moment even her “Truth” cannot fully share or explain.
The structural genius at play continues here too. While it is compelling to see how different characters change in behavior from different perspectives, it is perhaps more telling which scenes are not repeated from a different Truth. Le Gris’s Truth includes a moment of flirtation with Marguerite and Marguerite’s own Truth omits the moment entirely. Is it a tacit admission to the truth of a shared memory or experience? Is it a sin of omission from her Truth? A fictional creation of his own? A moment formative for his memory of her… and one that did not register enough to form a memory for her? The text here will, I suspect, remain rich for interpretation and re-interpretation over the years.
The Last Duel is one of the year’s best films. It is a universal story of how society demeans and abuses women. It is also a period epic that stands among Scott’s best, filled with resplendent production design and superbly staged action scenes. Perhaps, most of all, it is a meditation on memory, and how people can easily manipulate their Truth – even unconsciously – to suit their view of the world.