Posted by

Allen Adams Allen Adams
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

edge staff writer


He said, he said, she said – ‘The Last Duel’

Rate this item
(2 votes)

Often – perhaps too often – we are wont to romanticize the past. We look back at the events of history through rose-colored lenses that focus on the grandiose and filter out many of the more unsavory elements.

The age of chivalry, for instance. We tend to celebrate the heroic and heraldic whilst utterly ignoring the bleak realities of that time for anyone who lived outside the sphere of knights and noblemen. The crushing poverty, the endless warfare, the lack of agency for anyone outside the elite – these truths are absent from the familiar tales of derring-do.

“The Last Duel” – directed by Ridley Scott and based on the 2004 book of the same name by Eric Jager – attempts to delve deeper and address that time and place with a little more honesty. Jager’s book, which is based on a true story, is adapted for the screen by some rather notable writers: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the script alongside Nicole Holofcener.

Damon and Affleck star, as do Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, in this multi-faceted tale of what happens when a woman of this era accuses a man of rape. Told from multiple perspectives, it’s an effort to deconstruct the uneven power dynamics of the time, its historicity inviting comparisons and contrasts to present-day circumstances. The film sprawls across the screen, asking the audience to view the proceedings through the eyes of three different narrators, each of whom with their own beliefs regarding how the story played out.

We start with the brooding, seething preparation for a duel. Two knights strapping into their armor, donning their weapons and mounting their horse, all in an effort to get ready to face off against one another. They face off, then move at one another, swiftly approaching collision … and then we rewind.

Our first chapter follows Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a scarred and sullen warrior who nevertheless commits himself fully toward battling his (or rather, the King’s) enemies. He’s a great fighter with a big temper, so he chafes somewhat at the appointment of his new overlord Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck); it’s particularly difficult because his dear friend and longtime compatriot Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) seems to have the ear of the new lord.

When de Carrouges’s financial troubles mount, he opts to wed Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer) for her sizable dowry despite the fact that her family once betrayed the crown. Still, de Carrouges does his best to provide, though numerous conflicts arise between he and Pierre (and by extension Jacques).

But when he returns from a post-battle trip to Paris, de Carrouges receives alarming news from his wife. Marguerite claims that Le Gris came to their home while she was alone, forced his way in and raped her. He believes her and pushes the story into the community, knowing that there’s no way to receive fair treatment with Pierre in charge. He makes his case to the King (Alex Lawther) and demands satisfaction from Le Gris, who denies the charges.

Chapter two takes us back and relates this same tale through the eyes of Le Gris. This time through, we see de Carrouges as a thickheaded lout, good for fighting and little else. We watch as Le Gris steadily climbs in Pierre’s estimation, becoming more and more of a trusted advisor. The conflicts between Le Gris and de Carrouges play out differently, with Le Gris as the sophisticate and de Carrouges as the oaf.

And we watch as Le Gris schemes his way into the de Carrouges home in the knight’s absence, believing his infatuation with Marguerite to be reciprocated. He follows her in and takes her against her will; it’s notable that even in his own recollection, Marguerite’s actions are clearly those of someone who is being assaulted. Le Gris claims the encounter to be consensual, but upon advisement denies to the public that anything happened at all, up to and including at the revelation of Marguerite’s testimony against him.

Lastly, in our third chapter, we get Marguerite’s story – the real story. We see her deal with the insecurities of her husband even as she seeks to find ways to improve the operation of their estate. We watch as she is unsettled and put off by the oiliness of Le Gris. We even get some perspective as to how she engages with other women, as well as a sense of just how lacking in basic human rights their sex is.

And we see the physical brutality of Le Gris’s actions, as well as the emotional brutality inflicted upon her in the aftermath, all of it leading up to the conclusion of the duel that started at the film’s outset.

“The Last Duel” is a fascinating film. For one, we don’t often see movies like this anymore – big-budget, movie star-laden offerings that aren’t franchise products; it’s a prestige picture with a nine-figure price tag. It’s the return to screenwriting partnership for Damon and Affleck, coming a quarter-century after their breakout success with “Good Will Hunting.” Apparently, the two of them wrote the male-centered chapters, while Holofcener handled the female one – an intriguing idea that definitely pops in the realization. And it’s a continuation of the late career surge of Ridley Scott.

All of this, plus the complexity of both the storytelling and the story being told. The obvious comparison is Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Roshomon,” exploring the notion of truth as it is perceived through the eyes of differing participants. Scott and company take their time moving through each chapter, finding the moments where the same scene can play out in different ways depending on who is doing the recollection. And the story itself – one built on the reality that the truth is secondary to the perceived value of the truthteller – lends itself beautifully to the conceit, artfully crafted with a handful of genuinely aha-type moments.

This complexity is elevated by a collection of absolutely magnificent performances. Damon buries himself under pockmarks and battle scars and a staggeringly off-putting mullet/beard combination, creating a man who has spent his life being honed into a weapon of war. He is a product of his environment, one incapable of seeing beyond his own personal aggrievements. Driver subverts his inescapable charisma, turning himself into a creeping caricature of ambition and selfishness; his belief in his own value is such that he’s left with no choice but to think that he is entitled to all that he desires. Comer gives an utterly haunting turn as Marguerite, embodying the respective male ideas of who she should be in their chapters before completely upending them when she is finally allowed to tell the tale herself. Oh, and lest we forget, Affleck is an absolute delight as the preening Pierre, capturing a marvelous vibe of indifferent hedonism and callous disregard for anyone who isn’t of use to him. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent as well, but this movie succeeds on the strength of its core quartet.

(As an aside, there’s something remarkable about Ridley Scott being able to craft a movie of such scale and scope at his advanced age. His ability to spin out myriad small moments from the structural underpinnings of large ones remains stunning; few can marry the intimate and the epic as cleanly and effectively. Another late-career standout from an icon.)

“The Last Duel” is a challenging film, to be sure. It is a movie that demands a lot of its audience, the sort of viewing experience that can prove emotionally and intellectually exhausting. And while it may not fully succeed in its efforts to explore present-day attitudes through the lens of the past, it certainly makes a valiant attempt. Yes, it is messy and overwrought at times, but it ultimately proves to be a powerful and provocative work of big-budget cinema. Expect plenty more accolades come awards season – this won’t be the last time you hear about “The Last Duel.”

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 October 2021 07:45


The Maine Edge. All rights reserved. Privacy policy. Terms & Conditions.

Website CMS and Development by Links Online Marketing, LLC, Bangor Maine