Published on October 18th, 2021 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Last Duel
The Last Duel is a brilliantly directed story that may take place in 14th century France, but feels just as important in our modern times.
“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men.”
This line is taken from one of the rare scenes in The Last Duel that involves a conversation between two women. This dialogue plays quite powerfully in the moment, yet it is made all the more harrowing in context—the film very purposefully illustrates the perspectives of powerful men throughout most of its runtime, relegating the women to the background. It is not until the film’s final 45 minutes that we become privy to the standpoint of Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer), to whom the quote above is directed. While something like The Bechdel Test may see this as a flaw in the film, the opposite is, in fact, true. The film constructs a very calculated and insightful historical account, one in which men have the first and most influential say, and “the truth” according to the women themselves is not even an afterthought. True to humanity’s tumultuous past, her account is rendered, by default, scrutinized hysterics.
In storytelling, the vantage point of the characters often becomes the vantage point of the reader/audience. Every story has a bias, and the narrative is essentially just that—a narration from an individual’s mind, an account of events that makes the viewer emotionally conjoined with the protagonist. However, The Last Duel inherits a powerful and resonant narrative form that illustrates the fallibility of this convention. Invoking the Japanese classic, Rashomon, Ridley Scott’s latest period drama finds its substance not from THE narrative, but rather a series of narratives, each reflecting a different character’s hubris, privilege, and emotional baggage.
The issue at hand is the rape of Lady Marguerite, the wife of squire Jean de Carrouges, and the characterisation of the subjects of this crime leading up to the event. The film (or should I say book) gets its title from the last recorded duel in France, driven by the misguided pursuit of justice for this crime. First, we get Jean de Carrouges’ (Matt Damon) perspective, a man with a victim complex who believes he is owed more honor and respect than he deserves. Next, we have Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), who has been given everything a young squire could hope for, yet he covets that which he cannot have simply because he sees himself as having rightful domain over whatever or whoever he pleases. Finally (and most importantly), we have Lady Marguerite (Comer), whose haunting and compelling perspective is left for last not only because it is the most dramatically riveting and authentic, but also because it is seen as inessential by 14th Century French society.
The film builds momentum incrementally as it traverses these three chapters. It gives us a nuanced and deeply compelling account of both men, developing their privileged and hubris-guided egos as both narrative and thematic context. By the time we get to Lady Marguerite’s account, the film has already so cleverly established the power dynamics at play that her perspective speaks for itself by simply being told, being dramatized. The film was written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, each one taking on a different chapter. Not only does this unique writing method combine the talents of three very gifted writers, but it also allows that essential element of subjectivity to excel dramatically. There are a few events in the film that are seen multiple times, each one differing in subtle ways based on whose eyes we are seeing it through. While these differences aren’t as deeply felt as the film seems to want them to be, the idea behind them is powerful enough to drive home the point. Truth is fleeting; power is truth. Additionally, the screenplay drops the viewer into these characters’ lives and forces them to piece things together as they go with little exposition. This approach may be alienating to some viewers but succeeds tremendously in its sheer fidelity to the core philosophy of the story.
It’s a story not only about power but also who gets to hold it. And this idea reverberates into our present time as much as it does in the past. The film feels incredibly poignant to the current conversation about male privilege and gender dynamics in today’s world—a perfect piece of history to mine for a film in 2021. In a contemporary world in which hyper-subjectivity dominates, The Last Duel illustrates that human consciousness has always been a powerful but frustrating beast. One in which truth is often obfuscated by both the sheer nature of the human condition and also the man-made hierarchies on which these egos are placed. Questioning whether there can ever be true justice in a world so deeply mired in inequality and limited objectivity, it serves as a sobering and deeply effective reminder as much as it does a cautionary tale.
The performances in the film are state of the art. I can see some potential Oscar campaigns happening later this year, especially for the likes of Driver and Comer, who embody their characters’ unique standpoints with subtlety and a smoothness that makes every little moment of characterization leap off the screen. Damon and Affleck are fantastic as well, though their performances do feel slightly over-rehearsed, perhaps because of their proximity to the project. I truly believe Jody Comer is a force that will be reckoned with in the film industry for years to come as she’s shown her tremendous range from psycho killer (Killing Eve), to humorous badass (Free Guy), to strong-willed lady of a ferocious time for women. She steals the show, especially in the trial scene in which she is so unfairly and unscientifically interrogated by men who truly know nothing of her pain but come to discover everything about her bravery.
As for Ridley Scott, his direction is on the highest level. A perfect candidate to bring this script to life, he adds to his collection of fully realized period pieces with a visual composition that extracts every ounce of emotion and every degree of visceral impact in equal measure. Most notable are, of course, the scenes that Scott does best—the scenes of battle, of fierce, brutal, and chaotic combat, all of which culminate in one of the most spectacular and cinematic fight scenes in recent memory. But he also commands an incredible amount of dramatic grace, especially when depicting the rape itself, which is brutal and explicit but also incredibly sophisticated in its emphasis on the starkness of the crime. The titular duel is gritty and ruthless and composed with an exceptional understanding of how to make a fight scene feel and not just be understood.
Additionally, the production design, costuming, hair, makeup, special effects, etc. are of the highest order. There is a shot at the very end of the film that is so strikingly opulent as it depicts the enormous congregation of onlookers for the duel and the winner’s victory lap that it took my breath away. And if all that wasn’t enough to sell you on the film, the score by Harry Gregson-Williams is chilling and minimal when it needs to be and bold when the time finally comes.
Surely, it could be noted that the film, which currently stands at two and a half hours, could stand to be trimmed down by 15-20 minutes. There is perhaps a little too much table-setting for a film that ultimately has a simple story to tell. But for the most part, its attention to detail and characterization allows the stakes to be set up in striking fashion. This is one of Ridley Scott’s finest films in recent memory, and an illustrious addition to his period drama collection. And while all the exciting, visceral filmmaking is there in spades, the film never loses sight of the harrowing reality of the gender dynamics and privileged perspectives at play. It is a film reminding us that truth is an incredibly important pursuit despite its slipperiness. And more than anything, it serves as an example of how we can learn from history’s women and their bravery. That their stories can and should be told so that maybe, just maybe we as a society can become better for them.