With The Last Duel, Ridley Scott delivers a brutal and bloody Medieval epic. The story may be set in 1300s France, but the themes are still relevant today. Taking the first script written together by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since Good Will Hunting, Scott tells a tale about male vanity and arrogance, and female suffering.
The last sanctioned duel in France attracted thousands of spectators and has been discussed by several prominent writers – including Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire. Due to the vastness of the crowd, there are many accounts on what happened that one fateful day. One can imagine Scott recreates the exact details of the duel with accuracy. The scene is violent and tense and puts you on the edge of your seat as you await to see the winner. In this period of Europe’s history, blood shed was still considered to be a proper form of adjudication.
Regardless of whether the fight to the death between knights Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris vindicated the honest party, the real truth is neither of these men were innocent. Before we reach the thrilling climax, The Last Duel is told in three separate acts: the truth according to Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), the truth according to Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and the truth according to the Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Each perspective lends a variation on the events which led to the duel. It is through this effect of Rashomon storytelling (a device derived from Akira Kurosawa’s film of the same name) that we are given insight on how each character perceives themselves and those around them. From de Carrouges’ point of view, he is a kind husband who is wronged by his former friend at every turn. Alternatively, Le Gris views de Carrouges as having a thick skull and being of hot temper. It is revealed in Lady Marguerite’s version of the story that both men were proud and ignorant, and that she is the true victim of the conflict. The film emphasizes her account to be the most true. However, by the time the film reaches Lady Marguerite’s chapter, which is told last, the film has exhausted much of the interest in the story. At this point, we have revisited the same scenes and beats, with sometimes only mild differences, and the film has fallen into a motion of plodding.
The subject material of The Last Duel is difficult to watch and so it is important I express what to expect from the film. What will make viewers uncomfortable aren’t elaborate sword fights where limbs are lost, but the two rape scenes which occur (or rather, the same scene done in two different takes). Lady Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape, and that is why the two men must fight to the death. The winner of the duel will be deemed having told the truth, as God is on the side of those who are honest. The stakes are life or death for Lady Marguerite as well, as she will be burned alive if her husband does not win. The story of The Last Duel is more political and rooted in the modern #MeToo movement, than it is an action-stuffed legend of knights.
Screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, who co-wrote 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, adds a woman’s voice to the script. She helps create the pained portrait of Lady Marguerite, consistently viewing her with a sympathetic lens no matter who is doing the storytelling. Holofcener navigates the story’s themes of rape and female disempowerment without being distasteful or exploitive; neither does she mince words. Wherein films past, rape has been used deliberately as a plot device. The affliction of the female victim would then belong to a male character as motivation for revenge against an enemy. The Last Duel subverts itself from this trope and gives Lady Marguerite agency in her own tragedy. She stirs the pot, stands her ground, and risks her life so justice may be served. Jodie Comer, who delivers a career-best performance, is likely Oscar-bound.
There are no knights in shining armor in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. Matt Damon and Adam Driver are hardly the handsome hunks we’re used to seeing. But if you can stomach it, The Last Duel is a film that demands to be seen.