by the Cedars A&E Staff
“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of man.”
“The Last Duel” is an enigma of a film. It is directed by Ridley Scott, who is known for his gripping action films such as “Alien,” “Gladiator” and “The Martian.” While the marketing has made “The Last Duel” seem like a traditional medieval epic, the film’s story goes far deeper than that. It is one of the most character-focused dramas Scott has ever produced, dealing with mature topics that remain relevant today.
Of course, the film still boasts some intense battle sequences that highlight the brutality of medieval combat, but Scott chooses to focus on dialogue and character development over action (something the trailers have spectacularly failed at representing). Specifically, the film shows the heartbreaking consequences of sexual assault and the equally heartbreaking reaction of a medieval society that doesn’t give any credence to the testimony of a woman whose world has been shattered around her. Despite its unexpected failure at the box office, “The Last Duel” tells an important story that, while not appropriate for all audiences, is worth the watch and a lot of thought afterward.
Inspired by true events, “The Last Duel” is written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener. Set in France during the late 14th century, the film opens with the commencement of a dramatic duel between two knights before rewinding to explain the story leading up to this point. The central catalyst of the events leading up to the duel comes when the young Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of the French knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jean’s longtime ally Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of having raped her.
The film doesn’t immediately tell us the specifics of what happened but instead gives us three distinct chapters that show each of these characters’ lives play out from each of their perspectives. First, we get Jean’s perspective of the events leading up to the duel, then Jacques’ view, and finally the story through the eyes of Marguerite. All these stories build to the climactic duel previewed in the opening scene, a tense and emotional final confrontation between Jacques and Jean that’s equal parts nuanced and exhilarating.
The complicated relationship between Jean (Matt Damon) and Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is revealed across each chapter of the film.
The way “The Last Duel” tells its story is arguably just as important as the story being told, as each chapter puts the viewer in the mindset of each of the characters. We don’t just learn how things happened; we see how each character perceived the events from his or her own perspective, thereby understanding more about how each character sees themselves.
Importantly, when we get to “The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges,” the latter words slowly fade away, leaving only the words “The Truth.” In her chapter, we see the way events actually unfolded without the filter of either of the knights’ inflated egos. This is the most graphic of the three chapters, showing the horrible reality of Marguerite’s assault as well as the cold indifference of those around her. Driven by a well-meaning but self-centered sense of nobility, her husband eventually decides there’s only one way to resolve the issue: trial by combat, under the assumption that the sovereign Lord will uphold the truly righteous man.
The standout performances by Comer, Damon and Driver are bolstered by a nuanced, realistic screenplay that intentionally uses specific situations to reveal crucial insights into each of these characters’ inner lives. That said, one of my biggest complaints about the film is its questionable content, most of which comes in scenes meant to show the debauchery and lack of morals of Jacques as well as Ben Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alençon.
Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is a man whose few shreds of honor are eclipsed by his debauchery and cruelty.
While these scenes establish the Count’s moral bankruptcy and explain why he favors Jacques for having similar values, there are many other ways of demonstrating those points without being so unnecessarily gratuitous. I was perplexed by the stark contrast between the utter excess of these scenes and the somber tactfulness with which the heart-wrenching depictions of sexual assault, which left me wondering what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.
It’s also important to note that while “The Last Duel” is primarily a period piece about the mistreatment and injustice faced by women in the Middle Ages, many viewers will see this film as a thinly-veiled allegory for the modern #METOO movement. While the film can be interpreted in such a light, I don’t know enough about Ridley Scott’s intentions to confirm or deny this interpretation.
Regardless of whether or not these parallels are intentional, “The Last Duel” stands as an uncompromising testament to the horrible realities of sexual assault faced by women throughout history. Its message about the importance of truth was true for that period and holds true for today. Regardless of how you feel about the film’s modern-day parallels, it nonetheless gives us a deeper understanding of the seriousness of its subject as well as conveying the gravity of situations involving sexual assault and victim silencing in our own day.
While acknowledging that some of its content is gratuitous and unnecessary, its masterful craftsmanship and impactful story make it a meaningful watch for mature viewers. For these reasons, I give “The Last Duel” an 8/10.
“The Last Duel” will be available to stream on November 30 and to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray on December 14.