Hello Interwebs! Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is essentially a legal drama/ epic… with lots of violence. Interested yet? Read on for more of my thoughts…
Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual assault which may be offensive or disturbing to some.
The Last Duel is based on a novel by Eric Jager which is based on a true story from Medieval France. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a Knight who can’t seem to catch a break in life. But his misfortunes equal the success of his friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Jealousy strains their relationship. But, when Gris rapes Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) –Jean’s wife– Jean puts his life on the line to maintain his family’s honour. He challenges Gris to a duel: the last duel ever sanctioned by the French judiciary. So, just to be clear, there were more French duels after this one– just less official.
I knew virtually nothing about this movie going in. The marketing said it was written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, and Ridley Scott was the director. All those brilliant people collaborating was enough to sell me on the project.
Glad to see my faith wasn’t misplaced! This is arguably the most “different” movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s not every day we get big budget dramas for adults with more talking than action and… wait! Don’t leave yet! Where are you going?? Aw shucks. I’ve alienated a bunch of you off this movie already. Your loss I guess.
But seriously: don’t go in thinking this is some Medieval action extravaganza. There are quite a few action scenes, but they’re spread thin. I’ll get to those in a little while.
This is fundamentally a story of sexual assault and the extreme legal lengths required to punish the guilty. Some of you might think that sounds like a familiar story. Well, let’s put it this way: our society hasn’t come all that far in 600 years… I found it both shocking and repulsive how many of The Last Duel’s conversations about rape could easily take place today (and do).
Maybe some of you chalk that up to Hollywood being “woke” or whatever. But it seems some actual research went into Medieval legal customs for this story. Marguerite de Carrouges’ case was famous enough in French society that many records from the time still exist about her. Author Eric Jager also allegedly assisted on the script.
The Last Duel splits its story into three chapters: #1 tells the story of Jean de Carrouges, #2 goes back to the beginning and tells it from Jacques Le Gris’ point of view, and #3 returns to the beginning once more for Marguerite de Carrouges’ perspective. The film culminates in the titled Last Duel.
This plot didn’t invest me straight away. The characters and world seemed interesting enough but nothing really hooked me in. And I was somewhat confused by all the massive time-skips. Why were they doing that? Couldn’t they have just started the story later? Technically they could have. But it wasn’t until the second and third chapters I realized that those gaps were intentionally left to fill in later. You need a little patience on this movie before things start coming together. To break it down: I was intrigued in Chapter 1; Enticed by Chapter 2; and engrossed by Chapter 3.
Maybe you’re wondering to yourself: “So you’re saying this movie is just the same scenes over and over? No wonder the run-time is so long…” I wouldn’t worry about the repetition too much. Each of The Last Duel‘s chapters takes place from different perspectives, so we see new aspects of the moments every time they’re shown. Sometimes the moments play out very different depending on who’s telling the story. There’s even alternate dialogue in repeated scenes– a choice which helped lessen the potential monotony.
To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi:
[M]any of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.Obi-Wan Kenobi (Return of the Jedi).
The Last Duel‘s variation in perspectives played brilliantly! Each chapter makes more sense when it’s viewed as a biased recounting of events (especially the first two). Everyone’s stories had truth to them– even the rapist’s, from his own point of view.
Maybe this will be seen as controversial, but I (as a writer) appreciated such a bold characterization of Jacques Le Gris. Lesser films would have been content to cast him as a moustache-twirling villain and call it a day. Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener could have easily done so because rape is obviously disgusting and evil. That said– it makes for superior storytelling when filmmakers dare to understand even the most vile of people’s points of view.
The Last Duel makes clear that Jaques HONESTLY feels he committed no wrong. It even lays out his justifications in ways we can understand, though the movie knows we likely won’t agree with him. To be clear: the movie does not condone his actions whatsoever. But he is one of the three main characters and it’s important to understand why he committed his crime.
And here’s a warning: The Last Duel features multiple scenes of rape. Each of them was disturbing (the second more than the first). Both instances showcase the same encounter yet play very different depending on whose perspective we follow (a prime example of my statement a few paragraphs previous).
The movie pushes its themes past the surface-level traumas of rape and people’s reactions. In the traditional story of this kind, Jean de Carrouges’ chivalry would compel him to fight Le Gris for the honour of his wife. That kinda sorta happens. But The Last Duel makes us question the basis of this “chivalry”. Is the fight really for Marguerite’s sake, or to satisfy Jean’s personal vendetta against Le Gris? TLD also indirectly begs a question relevant to modern and Medieval times: why are all these men (lawmakers especially) granted so much power over women’s bodies?
Rape in this Medieval society is seen more like vandalizing property (I believe was the metaphor they used) than an issue of human rights. So The Last Duel appears to argue that chivalry has nothing to do with avenging wronged women, or even being good people. It’s actually about men defending their pride and refusing to look weak. That’s a cynical view which I don’t fully agree with, but it’s a compelling take which I’ve never seen presented this way before!
Ridley Scott has a flare for making everything feel grand. Wide-sweeping shots show off the landscapes, allowing us to take in the beauty of this world. From parties to dingy castles to battlefields, Scott’s world feels alive and lived-in.
Speaking of Battlefields: the action was fast-paced, brutal, and spectacular! There isn’t a lot of it, but what we got is was well-done. The Last Duel (the actual battle) was suitably epic! The whole movie was build-up for that moment and it didn’t disappoint. I mean, this is the guy who made Gladiator, so he’s no stranger to kick-ass duels.
I’m not sure how much of this movie was made with practical effects, but it looked to be the majority of set-pieces. Either that, or the CGI was SO good I couldn’t even tell how fake stuff looked. The only digital things I spotted were the skylines and most long-shots of the urban settings.
Performances in The Last Duel were excellent across the board! Matt Damon and Adam Driver were reliably excellent, and Ben Affleck (as Count Pierre d’Alencon) offered some well-needed comic relief. But Jodie Comer was the MVP here, as she was in Free Guy. I’ve quickly become a fan of her work! Her non-verbal acting in The Last Duel is particularly impressive. Marguerite barely gets any dialogue in the first 2 chapters but I had a good sense of her character from behaviour alone.
Onto a few negatives now. The Last Duel is a long film at 2.5 hours. That’s a long time for what amounts to a series of legal conversations and a few action scenes. I get that Ridley Scott was trying to make an epic movie here– and he did– but I’m not sure it needed to be so lengthy…
I also wasn’t a fan of the colour grading. Why does every Medieval Times movie have to have the same dark grey colour palate? It’s atmospheric but dour.
The Last Duel tackles timely subject matter through the lens of a historic trial. It was a complex and captivating drama! I won’t be be compelled to re-watch it any time soon though. I have few complaints with the the movie but sometimes you’ve got to score things by your gut feeling, ya know?
The Last Duel narrowly misses my “Must See” mark because it doesn’t feel quite engaging enough for that recommendation, but it’s Pretty Darn Good.
What are some recommendations for good Medieval Times dramas I should watch? What did you think of The Last Duel? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,
REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.