Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator), The Last Duel is a compelling visually lush, harrowing, twisty triplicate narrative. It’s a lot about how people view themselves running into reality. Also, it is about how things such as toxic masculinity has been embedded in human culture for centuries. There’s also the promised titular Duel which delivers in a very messy way. It’s a dark, complex movie with horrible people acting horribly and people powerless to stop them as the law doesn’t view them as people. Even the knights in armor aren’t particularly all that shining.
In the 1330’s, French soldier, Jean (Matt Damon), marries a woman, Marguerite (Jodie Comer) to inherit land and prestige. His friend, the squire Jacques (Adam Driver), has also inherited land from the debauchery loving Count Pierre (Ben Affleck). Jean goes off to war and, upon returning, his wife reveals she was raped by Jacques. However, Jacques disputes this vehemently saying their encounter was consensual. Utterly enraged, Jean asks for a trial by combat, a duel which has not been seen for years in France. This means that if he loses not only is he dead, Marguerite will convicted of lying about accusing a man of rape and sentenced to be burnt alive. As Jacques refuses to admit wrongdoing, the only way out is a bloody battle between the two former friends.
There’s an interesting narrative trick recalling movies like Rashomon or The Usual Suspects where the same story is seen repeatedly from different perspectives. There are multiple angles on the same event and different characterizations based upon who is selling the story. It makes The Last Duel stand out more than just a medieval morality play, and the way characters change in each story is fascinating. The first story is told from the perspective of Jean, and, in his own accounting, he seems like an upstanding citizen and Jean’s wife is adoring and subservient. He heroically charges in to save people from being slaughtered and saves the day. By contrast, in the second story told by Jacques, Jean’s maneuver was foolhardy and only Jacques flying in saved Jean’s life. In the third story told by Jean’s wife, he’s an unfeeling clod who cares more for his territory and pride.
Damon gets to change the most in between the three different stories, the only version where he comes off as a hero is the first one. In the third version of the story when he finds out about his wife being raped his response is to holler about things that Jacques has taken from him. As the friend turned enemy, Driver plays multiple perspectives. What is especially disturbing is how his encounter with Marguerite is a teasing and consensual in his story while in her story it’s definitely not. The dialogue doesn’t change much in both versions but the context Driver puts into it speaks volumes about intent. Affleck’s Count really only shows up in Jacque’s story as Affleck plays the Count as a boisterous cad who seemingly pledges fealty to his wife while running around with multiple women. Affleck’s Count has some of the best lines and one moment when the Count snipes at Damon’s Jean it is fun to see the cinema chums being condescending to each other.
The heart of the film is Marguerite and Comer’s performance is fantastic. She shows a woman who is stuck in a world that views her as property as the rape is viewed as a slight against something owned by her husband. Her story is where everyone comes off as real humans, not caricatures of bravado like in the men’s stories. It is telling the title card says “The Truth According to Lady Marguerite” before her story fades out until only the word “Truth” is visible. Her reactions are nicely subtle, especially whenever the guys talk about her like she isn’t there. She even rips into Jean saying his pride may end up getting them both killed.
Director Scott is a pro at medieval smash and bash and there’s definitely some here. Jean’s cavalry charge is shown from two perspectives, in each one Jean or Jacques saves the other, and while the battle is brief it is very hard hitting. Since Scott is such an accomplished visualist his style works well in a film that is ultimately rather chatty. He knows when to open the camera up to show the grandeur of the places they live which contrasts with the close up drama. When the last duel happens, it’s gripping, visceral and bloody. Instead of just an action scene it is the characters expressing their rage at the injustices, real or imagined. Meanwhile, Marguerite just looks nervous by the whole thing, not achieving any catharsis or sense of justice. While there is a definitive winner or loser nothing feels resolved or even like any of this should have happened.
The Last Duel is a complex and moving film that shatters expectations on what exactly is truth, how people hide it, and how others experience it. The fact that it ends in senseless bloodshed and chaos shows that humans haven’t improved all that much. Times change, people don’t.
The Last Duel
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck