A rough approximation of my thought process as I decided whether or not to see The Last Duel – “it’s directed by Ridley Scott! Hooray! It’s two and a half hours long! Boooooooo! It’s got Adam Driver in it! Hooray! It’s set in 14th century France! Boooooooo! It uses that storytelling device I’m a sucker for, where the same event is retold from different people’s perspectives, thus giving the viewer a truly panoramic view of proceedings while enabling the creation of intriguing ambiguities in the plot! Hooray!”
Mathematics fans will have figured out that the ‘Hoorays’ took it 3-2, and so off I trotted to watch The Last Duel. In truth, though, my expectations were not huge, it would take a heck of a lot to get me, with my childlike attention span, immersed for over 150 goddamn minutes in a movie steeped in a historical period I know little about and have little interest in. But, good news – The Last Duel is an absolutely spectacular, enthralling piece of work, probably the best film I’ll see all year, and both accessible and intelligent enough to be watched, re-watched and dissected by anyone with even a passing interest in good cinema.
The Last Duel chronicles the, well, the last duel to ever be fought in France. We see the events that led up to the duel through the eyes of three people – the two duellists and the woman they’re warring over. Matt Damon is Sir Jean de Carrouges, who challenges former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a fight to the death after Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses le Gris of raping her.
The elephant in the room when discussing The Last Duel is that it has, to this point, absolutely shat the bed at the box office. As well as the aforementioned intimidating run-time and esoteric historical setting, the fact that such a hideous crime is so central to the plot is the another main theory suggested to explain the movie’s underperformance, despite its star studded cast and warm critical response.
What I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain, or even put into the proper words, is how sensitively and humanely The Last Duel treats Marguerite’s ordeal, and yet at the same time manages to never feel overwhelmingly dispiriting or arduous to watch. There are certainly scenes that make for difficult, even painful viewing, but they don’t reflect the film’s tone on the whole. Of course, everyone’s own tolerance for seeing such things on screen varies, and considering the rest of this review is going to be near rapturous, it would be remiss not to acknowledge what is clearly a significant factor for people when deciding whether or not to see the film.
If you’re still interested, however, then I have many, many good things to say for The Last Duel. Let’s start with the cast: Matt Damon, to be honest, is the weakest in a chain of outrageously strong links, and I don’t mean that as a particularly vicious slight on him, considering he’s still very decent in it. He’s just slightly miscast as Sir Jean de Carrouges; I’m not convinced a cold and pompous 14th century French knight is a role that plays to his strengths as an actor.
Of course, Damon was one of the film’s co-writers alongside his erstwhile chum Ben Affleck, who opted to take on a slightly smaller role as the roguish sexual deviant Count Pierre d’Alençon. Affleck has a whale of a time providing the closest thing the film has to comic relief and summons veritable reservoirs of charisma in doing so. There’s a part of me that thinks Damon and Adam Driver would have been better swapping roles, but then Adam Driver is so absolutely bloody fantastic as Jacques LeGris that I’d be reluctant to change one single thing about his contribution to the movie.
What I think is so impressive about Driver is how seamlessly he is able to inhabit a massive range of characters, despite the fact that he’s a very distinctive and slightly odd looking human being. Don’t get me wrong, he’s also a very handsome guy. But with his sweeping jet black hair and stark, severe, angular face, there’s an intensity to him that should burn through his attempts to masquerade as an emo supervillain in Star Wars; a playwright, muddling through a messy divorce in Marriage Story; or here, as Jacques LeGris, accountant to the stars in medieval Paris. But he can just do it, and he is so compelling all the bloody time.
Jodie Comer pulls off a delicate balancing act with aplomb with her portrayal of Marguerite. She imbues her with enough dignity and restraint that she remains an intriguing presence even in the men’s retelling of events, where her own experiences and desires are completely negated in favour of what the two of them want to see. She basically has to be a blank canvas, and she’s watchable even as that, as just something for two preening twats to paint their own ridiculous, idealised versions of her on. So when the film’s final third finally yields the floor to her memories, and she promptly delivers a display of mesmerising power and pain and sadness, it’s all the more bracing. She’s, like, a fully fledged human being! Who could have seen that coming?!
Affleck spearheads a uniformly terrific supporting cast, with Alex Lawther – low-key one of my favourite actors – proving particularly fun to watch during his scattered cameos as the barely pubescent, amusingly overdressed King Louis VI. Make no mistake about it though, this is a film that stands on the shoulders of its big three, a film that would have been a bit of a slog had even one of Damon, Driver and Comer not pulled their weight; and they all do (Driver and Comer don’t just do that, they also pull that weight while simultaneously juggling and unicycling).
They’re all so good that I’ve got this far without acknowledging that they’re all directed very capably by a promising up and coming filmmaker called Ridley Scott, who depicts a France of staggering bloodshed, cruelty and hedonism, all set against gloomy, overcast backdrops that ground you in how actually dismal and unfair the events of the film actually are.
And yet, and yet, and yet, it is the film’s three act structure, and the imperious script of Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, that for me enables the film to transcend being merely really bloody good and become something that had me emerging from the cinema with my heart pounding and my mind racing, absolutely convinced that I’d seen the best film of the year.
From this point on, there will be some spoilers, though I will resist the temptation to reveal the film’s climax, as much as I think it would help support a very contentious thing I am about to say.
Here is something I have not been able to quite shake from my head since watching The Last Duel. What struck me upon reflection is how similar LeGris and Marguerite’s versions of events are – they agree almost completely on what happened, it’s their interpretations of these events that differ. LeGris views certain gestures as flirtatious glances and smiles and compliments from Marguerite, but through Marguerite’s eyes we know they’re mere forced politeness. In the eventual rape scene, Marguerite desperately attempts to escape and tearfully begs LeGris to stop. But in LeGris’ recollection, Marguerite is merely making half-hearted protestations in order to behave as a lady would be expected to – in reality, she truly wanted him.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact of what LeGris did to Marguerite, but it does demonstrate that he sincerely does not believe he is a rapist and that he did nothing to hurt Marguerite. Some critics have rather reductively described this as a #MeToo movie, a lazy way to categorise a film that has anything serious to say about predatory behaviour and its consequences. If The Last Duel was merely jumping on the bandwagon, it could have put a lot less thought into its depiction of Jacques LeGris, portraying him as a monstrous aberration, rather than someone whose behaviour has its own internal moral justification that nimbly reflects the soul searching we’re going through culturally 800 years later.
And in contrast to LeGris, there is Sir Jean de Carrouges, who is a straight forwardly evil character whose own testimony is ridden with outright falsehoods intended to make himself look a nobler person. He recalls himself responding with immediate, immense sympathy when Marguerite tells him what LeGris did to her, when in fact he initially grabs Marguerite by the throat and accuses her of lying, before forcing himself on her himself in order to expunge the traces of LeGris’ crime in his own nauseating way. LeGris is a vain idiot who commits a hideous crime because he is so convinced of Marguerite’s feelings for him, but De Carrouges is the one who understands his own behaviour enough to want to obscure it, because he wants to keep getting away with it.
Regardless, the fact that I’ve been thinking so much about this film, to the point of wanting to explain myself on the Internet, is because of the complete brilliance of The Last Duel’s three narratives trick. There is one slightly frustrating stylistic touch: each ‘chapter’ of the film is introduced with a title card that says ‘The Truth According to Character XYZ.’ When we get to Marguerite’s story, all the words other than ‘Truth’ fade from the screen, and we linger on that one word to make absolutely clear that there is to be no ambiguity about this.
Marguerite’s story is how it all actually went down. Never mind that we could probably have worked this out for ourselves from what self-regarding arseholes Carrouges and LeGris are even in their own telling of events, apparently this is something we need to be told, not shown, in a faux subtle, clever way. It’s also a bit annoying because there are aspects to Marguerite’s story, like how when Carrouges is off fighting, she takes over the running of their estate and massively improves their finances and productivity while getting on brilliantly with all their staff that are just as self-aggrandising as the lads. But you can’t smile wryly and dismiss it as ego, you are instructed to believe that this is exactly what happened.
If it sounds like I’m nitpicking – I am. And it was because I was so gripped by The Last Duel that I noticed small blips that I would have glazed over entirely in other films. It’s not a movie with lots of bells and whistles beyond the three narratives concept. Each character tells their story in a linear, straightforward fashion; but everything is elevated by the brilliance of the cast, the understated intensity of Ridley Scott’s direction, and the immersive, multifaceted perspective on medieval France you get by seeing it through the eyes of three fascinating and complex characters.
It’s not a film in love with its historical trappings. It is a film that intends to demonstrate how unfairly women were treated at a certain point in history, and invites us to reflect on what has changed in 2021. And it gets away with any moments of moralising by just being relentlessly bloody exciting (and, at times, excitingly bloody!).
It’s forceful and propulsive, whip smart and immensely watchable, Oscar bait that actually deserves some Oscars. Is it perfect? No, but I think it’s a flawed masterpiece, and one that – for everyone comfortable with its content and themes – I would recommend wholeheartedly.