The Last Duel movie review: Jodie Comer battles medieval malpractices in Ridley Scott’s brutal drama
final duel | director: Ridley Scott
mold: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck
Period: 2 hours 32 minutes | Language: English | Rating: 3.5
The Middle Ages were essentially one bad hair after another. People of the time weren’t big on things like personal grooming, with droughts, famines, and plagues to worry about. At least, that has been the enduring belief. Ridley Scott says otherwise in his hair-raising medieval drama, The Last Duel. Matt Damon plays a French knight eager to make the mullet-fringe combo fashionable. Ben Affleck is a count with the bowl cut. That scare strategy is used as leverage when things get a little too unruly. On a grown man who has dyed his follicular crown platinum-blonde, this is not a good look. Not to mention a little distracting. The Boston Brothers could have a manhood crisis on set when they spotted co-star Adam Driver’s fabulous mane. Drawing attention to themselves and goofy as they can be, the haircuts play into the film’s investigation of men’s vanity. Which leads them to risk their lives and the lives of others in dick-measuring games that claim to play for honor.
Sorry for the unflattering haircuts, and The Last Duel is another strong entry in Scott’s filmography. His first feature, The Duelists, was an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story, in which a minor feud between two soldiers turns into a decades-long conflict in Napoleonic France. In The Last Duel, he goes back a few centuries to yet another display of men who mistake vanity for heroism. Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofsner adapted the screenplay from Eric Jagger’s 2004 non-fiction book of the same name.
A girl has been raped. She calls the criminal. The “law” that is questioned is its credibility. His reputation is at stake. That said, she said it could have been removed from today’s front pages. To illustrate how it has always been tragically, Scott transports us to 14th-century Normandy, when the public watch Jean de Carrouge (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (driver) at a state-sponsored trial by war. was gathered for Jean’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) had accused Jacques of rape, but she could not report the crime herself. A man not without a champion because of him. According to medieval thinking, the crime was not committed against him, but against the property of Jeanne. Jacques certainly denied the allegation.
The stage is set in the initial images. The two duelists advance on horseback at full tilt armed with spears and shields. As they collide, Scott cuts to 26 years ago, when Jean and Jacques were fast friends who fought together at the Battle of Limoges between France and England. When Jean sided with Count Pierre d’Alencone (Affleck) and Jacques Rose, friends become rivals. Simply put, Jean was a stoic and unpopular figure, while Jacques was a ladies man who made for a better wingman in orgies held by the Count. Therefore, he grants Jacques the land rights to Jean’s family inheritance. Hence the duel was the culmination of years of bitterness between the two. For Jean, the rape of his wife was only the catalyst that determined him to challenge Jacques to a duel. Which is more about holding Jacques accountable for alleged trifles against him, less about protecting his wife’s honor. Not to mention his life.
Should Jean be defeated, Marguerite will be burned to death. His medieval argument was believed to result in a manifestation of God’s own will. Meaning if Jack lost, he raped Marguerite. If he won, he had made a false allegation. Because God will only allow the truth to prevail. To demonstrate the scandalous nature of truth, Scott offers conflicting versions of it. Borrowing the Rashomon structure, the film tells the story through the eyes of Jean, Jacques and Marguerite in three chapters.
There are overlaps, mapping the three contrasting perspectives, but it is these differences that tell the true story. In Jacques’ version, a polite smile is perceived as a form of flirtation. An uninterested return is an invitation. Rejection is still temptation. No means yes. But Marguerite’s version suggests otherwise, how she left no room for any ambiguity over her feelings for Jacques. In his true sense, Jean portrays himself as a heroic knight for a doting wife. When he goes on another quest, Marguerite tells him to stop. Again, Marguerite’s version shows a wife who couldn’t care less. There’s even an eye-roll. Comer likes the subtlety of these changing approaches: in saying the same line with different underlying emotions, in the measured rhythm of her voice, and in the delicate modulation of a gesture.
When Jean leaves for battle, that’s when Marguerite really comes into her own. She takes care of every responsibility of her farm from collecting taxes from farmers to looking after the crop so that they do not die of hunger during all winters. But she has no sense of interiority in the accounts of Jean and Jacques, both of whom reduce her to merely an assistant. While his truth is hidden by selfishness, Marguerite offers an account closest to the truth of what actually happened. Because it’s his word, his reputation, and his life on the line. With that in mind, when the title card of the final chapter “The Truth in Marguerite de Carrouges” fades away, “The Truth” lingers a little longer. The rape is first shown through Jacques’s POV. The camera doesn’t show us Marguerite’s face through the ordeal because her consent is secondary to her own happiness. Only, when we are shown Marguerite’s POV in the final chapter, do we see the unspeakable depth of anguish on her face.
Thus the third chapter of the film is also its most multifaceted. Holofsner’s voice is crucial to this. She makes fun of men and their medieval (literal and figurative) ways at every opportunity. After another night’s round of carrying out “wife duties,” a self-satisfied jean confirms whether Marguerite had a “memorable and productive” intercourse as she did. When a wild calf breaks free and tries to breed with its prize, the gene repeatedly beats the calf before setting off the foal. This echoes how Marguerite shuts herself down because Jean is a jealous person. And he’s an heir-producing character for that.
In hack-and-slash mayhem and orgy, the film charts the politics and fallometrics that characterize medieval spectacle. Scott, and his well-known cinematographer Darius Wolsky, fetishize in close-up and widen the mess of bleeding, heads and severed limbs. When the duel begins, the score lets the sound of metal against metal, the sword cutting flesh, assume control. The choreographed scenes of men fooled by an assortment of metal weapons are never less amusing. The “Final Duel” lasts the right length, which isn’t long enough that it gets bogged down in its own tedious mud.
Jean, Jacques, and Pierre are all really awesome men, and Damon, Driver and Affleck don’t downplay the awesomeness. Affleck’s bangs and bleach-blonde hair and beard bring some fervor to an otherwise brooding drama. But what keeps The Last Duel from falling off the horse is Comer. When Marguerite is invited to the king’s court, she is asked the most humiliating questions: if she has intercourse when she is raped by Jacques, and if she has sex with her husband. According to another sly medieval theory a woman can only get pregnant if both do. It is doubtful that if this were the case then human civilization would have survived for so long. Comer shows how the trauma of such paralyzing dehumanization can turn a smart and warm-hearted woman into a hollow shell. The helplessness and anger on her face, and what she thinks but doesn’t say, captures the unspeakable anguish of all the Marguerites, who continue to face backlash only for speaking out against sexual violence.