In The Last Duel, director Ridley Scott shines again with a powerful depiction of the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history. It’s a might-is-right tale set in the male-dominated world of the late middle ages, 1370-1386, based on the 2004 book by Eric Jager. At stake are the lives of a victimized woman, her unborn child, her husband and the man’s licentious “friend.” In this era, a sacred battle of pride and honor between men overshadows integrity and justice for women who are treated as property. While keeping this historical context intact, writers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Nicole Holofcener allow Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), to stand stoically and bravely as the noble protagonist against the perpetrator of the crime against her, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver).
Strong characterization and Rashomon-style storytelling enrich The Last Duel. Jean is a man with great heart from an ancient and respected family of warriors. Unfortunately, he lacks skill and finesse in business, politics and love, often speaking his mind at the worst moments. Jean’s savviest decision is marrying the beautiful and intelligent Marguerite. With his brawn and her brains, the Carrouges hope to become a societal power couple. Le Gris, on the other hand, claws his way up from humble beginnings solely due to his intelligence and cunning ways; however, the character allows his guile to eclipse his intellect as he rises up the “corporate ladder” of court life. The Last Duel’s writing team ridicules the sycophant hypocrisy of privileged individuals without turning the crux of the matter into a straight up self-parody.
Jean and Le Gris shift from battle comrades to competitors to adversaries in The Last Duel, with the latter character usually getting the better of his simple counterpart. The drama intensifies when Le Gris decides to take one more prize by sexually assaulting Marguerite, figuring that she will stay silent out of conformance to decorum and medieval social etiquette. But even though Marguerite may be more a court creature than her husband, she’s willing to risk all rather than suffer the stupidity of men. All Marguerite needs to know is whether Jean will support her claim. Seemingly motivated by pride and revenge more so than love, Sir Carrouges eagerly embraces the fight and escalates it. Knowing that Le Gris controls the earthly political levers, Damon’s character daringly pursues a divine gambit; trial by mortal combat; a battle to the death where God decides the truth. Marguerite swallows hard, once again regretting the control that men have over female fates. But she does not retreat as France’s last state-sanctioned duel ensues.
Damon’s portrayal of Carrouges exudes just the right amount of plain, direct self-effacing with a moderate amount of chip-on-the-shoulder simplicity. The man is preoccupied with what is right and just. Le Gris describes Carrouges as “nothing more than a dumb fool, albeit one with a heart of gold, but no understanding of tacit.” Damon goes out of his way to complement this charge, and the results remind viewers that he’s much more than simply a pretty face. The actor’s performance during a self-emasculation scene feels reminiscent of his Saturday Night Live outing as Brett Kavanaugh, as Jean’s enraged bluster is twisted and absurd.
Driver’s portrayal of Le Gris is more demanding in The Last Duel. The character is a philanderer, but no more than the other aristocrats of the court. Le Gris imagines himself as a Casanova archetype. When Marguerite presents her side of the tale, Driver must divert his acting to embody a hubristic sociopath. The character’s “fond” embrace of Marguerite more closely resembles Heracles’ assault of Deianira than Don Juan’s wooing of Doña Ana. As a director, Scott asks the actor to be more than just an individual with serious temperament issues and a brooding exterior. Driver must carefully balance his transition from friend to foe for The Last Duel to work.
In The Last Duel, Comer does a magnificent job of portraying a smart, sensitive female trapped in a world where she is considered merely the property of a male. From her father to her oafish husband to a philandering squire, Marguerite has one rock after another placed in front of her. Even the character’s mother-in-law, Nicole de Buchard (Harriet Walter), fails to offer sympathy or empathy. Comer’s Oscar-worthy performance evokes the fantastic level of courage it took for Marguerite to speak out in 1389.
Rounding out The Last Duel cast, and adding much needed comic relief, are none other than Affleck as Count Pierre d’Alençon and Alex Lawther as King Charles VI. By placing a yellow wig on Affleck’s buzz cut and applying an amber soul patch to his face, Ridley gives Pierre the perfect cheesy persona, while Lawther brings something of a Sheldon Cooper vibe to the role of King Charles VI. Outwardly, he has a goofy, introverted adolescent countenance with highly idiosyncratic behavior and a general lack of humility. But when the character speaks, his words carry an ominous “because I am King, and I say so” tone.
Scott’s pacing of the nearly two decade tale benefits The Last Duel. The Middle Ages once again provide the maverick storyteller with a vast array of landscapes to reimagine and a wide variety of perspectives to survey. For example, when minstrels sit by a campfire, Scott evokes the lavish paintings of yuletide revelry for which so many Renaissance painters became famous. He also dusts off his Gladiator (2000) magic by meticulously crafting The Last Duel’s battle scenes while still keeping the narrative focus tight. The best aspect of the film is the world building and construction of medieval Paris. Whether it’s the foreground or background visuals, each shot has a distinct piece of texture or a person conducting an activity. Like Blade Runner (1982), Scott gives viewers a living city, not just a sterile background.
Despite all the exuberant world building, Scott struggles with the execution of certain themes and symbolism. Carrouges’ use of a particular hand blade leaves no doubt about the phallic imagery it represents, primarily due to the bombastic nature in which the climactic scene is executed. Also, a black stallion brutally accosts a white mare — a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of a sexual assault scene. But as Umberto Eco noted about the irony of Casablanca (1942), two clichés make us laugh, a hundred clichés move us. The Last Duel is no different.
In the coming months, it’s safe to wager that Scott will compete against himself during awards season. It remains to be seen which of his female-led powerhouse films — House of Gucci or The Last Duel — will prevail. What is evident is that the “cinematic” moviegoing experience is gradually taking shape once more, not just the notion of spectacle, but stimulation of the mind and conscience. By telling this story in Rashomon fashion, The Last Duel writing team effectively uses a multi-perspective device to enhance the narrative depth, changing the story from a simple period action feature into a broader statement about the rights and treatment of women. Viewers get a cautionary tale to ponder the exact notions of absolute “truth” and the “noble” motivations of humans.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.