‘The Last Duel’ is a feast for eyes, not food for thought

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 10/16/21

‘The Last Duel’ is a feast for eyes, not food for thought

Director Ridley Scott wades back into the sword-and-sandal waters with “The Last Duel,” a gritty retelling of the …

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‘The Last Duel’ is a feast for eyes, not food for thought

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Director Ridley Scott wades back into the sword-and-sandal waters with “The Last Duel,” a gritty retelling of the 14th century true story of France’s last judicially sanctioned trial by combat.

Former military mates Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) gradually have a falling out as Jacques’s favor rises among French nobility, sometimes at the expense of the tempestuous Jean. Their feud comes to a head when Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), publicly accuses Jacques of rape. After a deadlocked trial before Parliament, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) grants the request for a duel to the death to decide the case, and with it the fates of its three subjects. Indeed, if Jacques prevails, Marguerite would be burned alive as a perjurer.

There are few filmmakers more adept at medieval milieus than Scott, whose set design and camera work — with cinematographer and prior collaborator Dariusz Wolski — are exacting and exquisite. From the bloody battles to the grime of everyday life in 14th century Europe, the attention to detail is palpable and lacquers a layer of verisimilitude that carries the film. The highlight is the climatic duel, which Scott recreates in precise and gory detail.

The acting is uneven, with Comer emerging as the relative highlight. Ben Affleck feels somewhat miscast as Count Pierre d’Alençon, Jacques’s benefactor and Jean’s persistent foil. Driver is suitable as the popular but cagey Jacques, while Damon struggles with his accent and to find Jean’s voice.

The glaring problem with “The Last Duel” lies in its story structure, a three-act “Rashomon”-style plot line, each told from the particular perspective of the three principals. The story is thrice shown from the standpoints of Jean, Jacques, and finally Marguerite. This narrative choice appears shrewd given the contentions of each person and the ongoing historical debate over Jacques’s true guilt. However, the screenplay does not have the courage of its construct. Both chapters depicting the sexual encounter between Jacques and Marguerite show unquestionable acts of rape — Jacques’s version is only slightly less brutal than Marquerite’s. Each chapter is titled as “The truth according to …” that particular character, yet the words “the truth” in Marguerite’s title card linger longer before fading away, betraying the filmmakers’ own verdict.

Here, the device works best when portraying varying versions of Jean’s personality, which fluctuates from noble, wronged stalwart to courageous, angry dimwit and finally a callous, prideful husband. But no film released in 2021 (or any number of decades before) that shows the cruel rape of a woman is not going to leave any ambiguity over the truth of her accusation. Yet, that absence of ambiguity, however understandable and even necessary, belies the entire point and purpose of the “Rashomon” storytelling device, which rests on the premise that same seemingly objective event can be described in significantly different (often contradictory) ways depending on the subjective viewpoints and biases of its observers — leaving the truth in the lurch. Damon and Affleck share screenwriting credit with award-winning writer Nicole Holofcener, so it is difficult to determine who bears blame for this misapplication.

Beyond its visual aplomb, “The Last Duel” succeeds in illuminating historic and systemic misogyny that still persists centuries hence. But the film is ultimately more of a feast for the eyes than food for thought.

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