October 15th, 2021
MOVIE: THE LAST DUEL
STARRING: MATT DAMON, ADAM DRIVER, JODIE COMER, BEN AFFLECK
DIRECTED BY: RIDLEY SCOTT
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Studying the psychology of men has been navigated in many avenues of cinema, from the lost innocence of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, the macho madness of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, to man’s lust for thrills in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. It has been a constant theme to poke and prod, often hoping to find out what makes men the way they are, ultimately leaving audiences with more questions than answers. All the way back in 1977 director Ridley Scott had made his first film, The Duellists, which earned a bit of acclaim, winning a prize at Cannes, and became a highly praised piece of work by true Ridley Scott aficionados much later on in life. Forty-plus years later, and many movies in between focusing on the ego of men, Scott has returned to where he began, making a movie that deals in the motives and motivations of men during the 14th century, but this time Ridley is rightfully putting the stamp of the female gaze into the conversation. Told in a Rashomon-style, three chapters, and three separate realities, The Last Duel is about a trial by combat between Sir Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, fighting over the accused rape of Marguerite de Carrouges by Le Gris, but it’s deeper than just the horrific act. It’s about the way women have been treated as property for centuries, the misguided pride of men, and the way they think they should be given all that is owed to them. The Last Duel is a masterpiece, both on the screen and what’s between the lines, magnifying the flawed humanity of men and the courageous power of one woman.
One of the fantastic impacts of The Last Duel is the story structure. The screenplay, written by Ben Affleck, Nicole Holofcener, and Matt Damon- the first time Damon and Affleck have teamed together since Good Will Hunting– with each writing one of the three parts, and then coming together to make sure all the pieces fit together. Scott begins the action at the end, with Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) preparing to fight to the death. The prep, mounting their horses, the tension, the fear, all present from the start, but then we return to how we arrived at this quarrel. Each chapter is set with the title “The Truth of (insert name)”, beginning with Jean de Carrouges, his rise to becoming a knight, saving Le Gris’ life in the heat of battle, marrying Marguerite (Jodie Comer)- the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), a man known for his betrayal to the crown- and his falling out with Le Gris when land is awarded to him that he should rightfully own. Things come to an emotional explosion when Marguerite reveals that Le Gris entered their home and raped her, and it’s after this where we see the two other angles from Le Gris and Marguerite’s points of view. Each version is similar in beats, but with added moments, added glances, changed words, and the incredibly conflicted horror of how the truth can be separate from any one person’s reality.
As many who have followed the career of Ridley Scott, you would instantly know that The Last Duel is a film made by this director, someone who is no stranger to subjects of men in battle. From Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, and Robin Hood, he’s also no stranger to making films about their flaws, the trials of their conviction, and their rise in the face of adversity. That’s not the case here. Where The Duellists was set with the background of the Napoleonic war, about two men who duel one another so much, they forgot what they were fighting for in the first place; The Last Duel is about Marguerite and her courage to not let petty men steal her agency. Scott and company wisely place her telling at the back, not because her telling is the least important, but because it is a natural crescendo to what truly happened- All marvelously on display by Comer, who crushes her performance and overshadows her peers. We see the cracks and the kinks in the armor of these two men often. Le Gris is the man of towering stature, brimming with sexual confidence- inspired and egged on by the flamboyant prince Pierre d’Alencon (played to new heights by a snarky Affleck), unafraid to do what he must to impose his power, and no stranger to bending a woman to his will. Carrouges is the opposite; Whiney when he does not get it his way, quick to react in the face of pressure, a man that has been maligned by battle, and short tempered instead of bending to the will of those above him. When we arrive at Marguerite’s POV it’s about the picture coming full circle, as the little details we see of her through the eyes of the other two, we already know she is the stronger person in this tale.
This is also one of the more ambitious, yet incredibly unique films from Ridley Scott, which is unconventional in a story structure compared to all his works, but also unflinching in the narrative to please his audience. The last four films for Scott have been extensions of his personal inspirations in cinema, with The Martian being his David Lean, Alien:Covenant being his James Whale, All the Money in the World his ode to Fellini, and now The Last Duel with Kurosawa. And yet, I found myself reflecting on which films of Scott’s The Last Duel felt connected with most, with the obvious choice being The Duellists. More accurately the film The Last Duel feels connected with his is Thelma & Louise, which was about the friendship of two women, one raped, the other wielding the hand of justice, while surrounded by a cavalcade of men that display the various characteristics that make us the lesser sex. That’s not to say The Last Duel is pitting men and women against one another, but revealing to us the blinding arrogance that causes men to continue to believe the lies we tell ourselves.
That is what becomes the underlying message of The Last Duel, which is that history continues to repeat itself, the roots within the soil are coursing with a tradition of women being subjected to men’s stubborn pride, and in the year 2021 I don’t know if we ever fix that. Still, in a typical Ridley Scott fashion, it is all displayed in a wondrous fashion, collected together by the award worthy crew he brings along the way, with sets and costume design at the peak of their respective departments. The final title Duel is on full display of violence and theatrics, with Scott giving the audience the bloodshed it craves. But The Last Duel is more than that. It is a fascinating tale of facts fighting the fictitious. It would be cheap to be claimed as a 14th century take on the MeToo movement, when it is much more, it is something deeper, darker in the ways religion, duty, and power have been used to keep women silent. The final shot of The Last Duel is pure Ridley Scott, with a view of a green sunlit field, flowers in the foreground, a tree in the background, reminding us that long after the fighting is done, that the earth will be where we all end up. That will be our prison, but while we are alive, it is the truth that will set us free. Choose wisely.
THE LAST DUEL IS PLAYING IN THEATERS FRIDAY OCTOBER 15TH, 2021
Written by: Leo Brady