The Last Duel

The Last Duel ★★★★★

Based on a true story from the late 1300s, "The Last Duel" is about a trial by combat between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Carrouges's wife, Marguerite, (Jodie Comer) has accused Le Gris of rape. Le Gris maintains that they merely committed adultery and that Marguerite manufactured the rape claim so that her husband wouldn't kill her. Jean challenges Le Gris to a duel for the honor of his wife, maybe, but mostly because Le Gris has been pissing him off for at least a decade and Jean wants satisfaction. If Jean de Carrouges loses the duel this will be seen in the eyes of the authorities as proof that Marguerite is lying about the rape and she will be punished by being burned alive.

Like Kurosawa's "Rashomon", "The Last Duel" tells this story from three different perspectives: that of Carrouges, that of Le Gris and that of Marguerite. This conceit has definitely been done again and again since Kurosawa invented (or at least popularized) it, but the way Ridley Scott utilizes it here feels fresh and novel. It also feels like the most intriguing way to tell this story. Everyone involved in this situation has their version of "the truth" so presenting each participant's perspective of these events is the best way to capture every aspect of the situation and delve into it. I love how, for instance, the speaker of certain lines changes depending on whoever tells the story.

Every participant in this story is trying to make themselves look better in their version of telling it, of course, but the men still come off pretty badly. Carrouges is a stubborn, selfish sad sack who cannot get out of his own way or shut the fuck up when that would obviously be the best course of action. He is literally incapable of choosing his battles and that leads to him making his situation worse virtually every time. Le Gris is a cocky womanizer who gives invaluable assistance to his lord, Pierre (played with enormously entertaining gusto by Ben Affleck, who is clearly having a blast here) but also cannot conceive of a woman who does not want to be the recipient of his lusty advances. Marguerite comes across the best and presents the most blameless and tragic character (unsurprisingly) in this triangle. The men view her as property to be possessed, a woman with no agency over her own body and no choice whatsoever in how her life unfolds. She is used as a bargaining chip or a sex object, a brood mare at best and a conquest at worst. She is intelligent and kind, but those attributes seem totally ignored by men who are only interested in her looks and biology and how those things can be exploited.

The stakes could not be higher for Marguerite, which makes her easily the most sympathetic character. She's also the reason this movie is so damned suspenseful (and it is extraordinarily tense at virtually every moment). Obviously, you don't want to see her get violated so, even though the rape scenes are handled carefully and without exploitation, they're still harrowing. But her presence in the story makes the duel itself more intense as well. I don't really care if Le Gris or Carrouges win the titular duel. They're both assholes (they are, however, captivating assholes who consistently held my interest). But since the fate of Marguerite, whose only crime was being an attractive woman, hangs upon which of these pricks wreaks the most havoc on the other, the duel itself is imbued with remarkable intensity.

It helps that Scott is better at staging medieval combat and sword fights than any other director working today (and better than most of the directors who have ever worked in medieval time periods onscreen). The duel itself, as well as the handful of bloody battles that unfold throughout this film, is exciting and brutal. But I wouldn't be as close to the edge of my seat were it not for Marguerite. Jodie Comer is excellent in this role, as she was in a completely different role in the past summer's "Free Guy" (I need to watch "Killing Eve", where she apparently broke through, because I find her mesmerizing to watch). I love the subtle changes she affects to this character depending upon which perspective she is performing in (Driver and Damon are also excellent at this acting challenge). She engaged my emotions immediately and held them throughout. Damon is a great sad sack prick, unafraid of looking childish and pathetic. Driver is great at all the little facets of his charismatic, narcissistic rapist. Ben Affleck gets to be the most entertaining thing in the movie, getting most of the best and most biting dialogue, and he's more fun to watch than he has been in years (more filmmakers should just let Affleck tear lose in the margins of movies, he's a force of nature here...pun unintended). The acting is great and the dialogue is smartly written. (I love Damon's reaction to his wife's revelation of rape: "Is there nothing this man will not take from me?!" Even when it's not about him, Carrouges inevitably makes it all about himself.) The story is compelling throughout, no matter whose perspective it is being told from or what is happening.

Scott takes a nearly thousand-year-old story and makes it incredibly timely as well, without marrying it to our current circumstances in a way that will feel dated. It's a "Me Too" movie and a movie where a pandemic features prominently (at least twice it is mentioned how a plague has wiped out half the work force) but Ridley manages to be pretty subtle about those aspects. If anything, he and the writers (the sharp and intelligent script was provided by Nicole Holofcenter, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) show that none of these issues are new, that we've been facing misogyny and toxic masculinity and even pandemics probably as long as humans have been walking the Earth. It's a movie about the patriarchy and how shabbily women have been treated forever and how they've always had more to offer than they've been credited for. If you think women haven't been subjugated for centuries, then you clearly haven't been paying ever. I love the foreshadowing of the humping horses, for instance, and how that also reflects Damon's mindset regarding his own wife.

I had a feeling that "The Last Duel" would be good, but I didn't know that it would be quite this extraordinary. I was slightly annoyed when I saw that this movie was two and a half hours long and braced myself in case the film would be a slog, but I didn't feel that a moment was wasted. I was riveted the entire time. It manages to be harrowing and devilishly entertaining in equal measure, never short-changing the brutality and grimness of its story while keeping the audience magnificently entertained throughout. It's probably in the top tier of Ridley Scott's vast filmography, and easily one of the best and most important movies of the year. It's a hell of a feat.

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