Keeping true to its title in function and form, “The Last Duel” is at constant odds with itself. Alongside meticulous recreations of the late middle ages and a few of the worst hairdos ever put on screen, Ridley Scott’s lavish historical drama offers 152 minutes of dialectical tension, mirroring its climactic battle nearly beat for beat as different versions of what this film could be fight it out until only one remains standing. And like any knockdown, drag-out melee that begins with a joust and ends in the mud, this push and pull between earnest epic and winking revision can be a bit of a mess for those in the ring and great fun for those in the stands.
The contradictions arrive right from the start, galloping into the frame alongside two medieval squires fighting another forgotten skirmish of the Hundred Years’ War. But what are we to make of Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who engages his opponents with the same severity of intent as his antecedents in “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” but who sports a stringy mullet and furry goatee that leave him a walking (and hacking and chopping) punchline? And what is up with Jacques Le Gris’ (Adam Driver) accent, which veers from the not-quite-British-but-over-enunciate-all-the-same affect common to these kinds of historical epics to a cadence modern enough to sound natural on “Girls,” sometimes within the same scene?
At first we chalk it up to opening jitters, an awkward if handsomely shot peek through one of Sir Ridley’s self-serious windows into the past. And we stay in that creeky register as we follow de Carrouges, a valiant fighter and man of honor with all the luck of Job. First the plague claims his wife and child, then he is forced to pledge fealty to Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, hamming it up under a bleach blonde mop top), who treats the squire with nothing but disdain. And then, to add a poisonous cherry on his sundae of shit, his lifelong friend Le Gris starts claiming all of de Carrouges’ inheritance.
However there is one glimmer of hope on his horizon, and her name is Marguerite (Jodie Comer), a disgraced nobleman’s beautiful daughter, whose hand — and the dowry it holds — is all set to put the newly knighted Sir Jean back on top. That is, until he returns home from one of his many military campaigns and finds out that Le Gris has claimed her too. Told in three chapters that each follow a different perspective, “The Last Duel” doesn’t play “Rashomon” with the question of sexual assault. The film is unambiguous about Le Gris’ crime, and so too is his victim, dropping the florid Olde Tyme speech that dots the dialogue in fits and starts to tell her husband point blank, “He raped me.”
What the three-tiered structure does, on the other hand, is upend our understanding of what came before. Because once we go back to follow events from Le Gris’ point of view, we very quickly come to understand what drew Damon and Affleck to pick up the pen, teaming with filmmaker Nicole Holofcener for their first screenplay in over twenty years. When the narrative reboots, we hang back with Le Gris as his fellow squire rushes off into battle, recognizing our erstwhile protagonist, perhaps for the first time, for the total dope that he is.
As it colors in previous events with new texture and narrative detail, Affleck, Damon and Holofcener’s dexterous adaptation casts the feuding leads as opposite sides of the same coin. Both are the authors of their own (mis)fortunes, with the shrewd and suave Le Gris using all the social graces his higher-born foil never had to lap him in life. If Le Gris holds onto some lingering warmth for his old friend, the fact is, one is a born loser and one, despite his lack of noble blood, was still born Adam Driver. Even in rigidly feudal France, you find your station.
For Le Gris, that’s as right hand man, permanent dinner guest and partner in all manners of lasciviousness to the hedonistic Count Pierre. Now free from Sir Jean’s turgid POV, “The Last Duel” assumes the new lead’s confidence and joie de vivre as the three movie stars fall into their respective comfort zones. Damon effortlessly slips into the hapless doof role he trots out whenever Steven Soderbergh comes calling; Driver reverts to cerebral hulk, self-satisfied but not smug about it; and Affleck — oh Ben Affleck — fuses both his and Justin Timberlake’s early 2000s tabloid personas as goateed libertine f-boy. Affleck is just an absolute joy whenever he’s onscreen.
And where’s Comer in all this, you may ask? Well, that’s exactly the point. Before dominating the film’s final chapter, Comer’s Marguerite remains trapped by two perspectives that, for all their differences, both buy into that positively medieval legal framework that sexual assault is not a crime against a woman but a property crime against her husband. Which makes it an interesting ripple when the violent assault, even framed from Le Gris’ self-serving POV that believes the act entirely consensual, remains unambiguously an assault. One could call it a break with the script’s conceptual framework done out of tact and good taste. But the more interesting reading would have it underline that same framework: That in the assailant’s gilded mind palace, this is what mutually enjoyable consensual sex looks like.
Of course the fact that both reads are open to interpretation reflects a limitation of Ridley Scott’s bombastic approach when faced with more sinuous material. Fact is, Scott is not an ironist, and the film’s odd heaves and lurches between performance and presentational styles, even within the same scene, are in part products of the filmmaker’s inability to live both within and outside a moment with the same fluidity as, say, Paul Verhoeven. Although, in fairness, you could say this dissonance between form and function makes parts of the film even more intrinsically camp than anything Verhoeven set out to do in “Benedetta.”
In any case, the director finds surer footing in the final chapter. As the film reframes the whole sordid affair from Marguerite’s view, it also shows its cards in a way “Rashomon” would never dare, which is, no doubt about it, a real break with the framework. But in seizing this newly found moral clarity and building toward the bruising showdown (don’t you dare cry spoilers on a film called “The Last Duel”) that is his entire stock and trade, Scott kicks the ball back toward his side playground while giving Comer room to shine.
That the lady in waiting displays more courage of character than any of her warring would-be-suitors should come with little surprise — it is a token of the genre. More unexpected is the (limited) time and attention the film pays to the women that surround Marguerite, reflecting on the choices they made in similar circumstances. And if elements of Nicole Holofcener’s intergenerational interest shine through in unexpected corners, “The Last Duel” doesn’t all of a sudden morph into a wholly different film; there’s no time for walking and talking when time’s running short and there’s a fight to be fought.
Through all these overlapping approaches “The Last Duel” reveals itself as something all too rare on the current Hollywood field of battle: an intelligent and genuinely daring big budget melee that is — above all else — the product of recognizable artistic collaboration. I guess that makes us the winners.
“The Last Duel” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. 20th Century Studios will release the film in theaters on October 15.
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