|Synopsis||In 1386, France sanctioned the last legal duel to the death as two knights fought over the honor of a woman who claimed she was raped. Who was telling the truth though?|
|Length||2 hours 32 minutes|
|Release Date||October 16th, 2021|
|Distribution||Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures|
|Writing||Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon|
|Starring||Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck|
It’s been four years since Ridley Scott released his last movie. In 2017, he released Alien: Covenant and All the Money in the World a mere six months apart. In 2021, he’s releasing The Last Duel and House of Gucci merely a month apart. For an 83-year-old man, Scott doesn’t seem to be losing his step. He’s releasing interesting and compelling movies on a frequent basis.
He’s nominally announced seven projects in development including a third Alien prequel, a possible third Blade Runner film, a Battle of Britain war epic, and adaptations of The Merlin Saga, The Prisoner, Queen and Country, and Wraiths of the Broken Land. That’s in addition to his upcoming AppleTV+ exclusive Kitbag; a historical epic about Napoleon’s France.
Who knows how many of those films will actually be completed, but the possibilities for all of them are exciting! It’s not unlikely that Scott will manage to finish a multitude of them before he finally retires or dies on the job. For now, we’re left with his newest film, The Last Duel, which may prove to be the best film he’s directed in the past decade!
Violence/Scary Images: Excessive violence and gore. Characters engage in sword combat and die in gushes of blood. Characters are beheaded, stabbed, and brutally killed.
Language/Crude Humor: Extreme language including hard swear words like c*** and f*** throughout the film.
Sexual Content: Rape is a primary theme in the story although the film’s rape scene doesn’t depict nudity. One character is described as a libertine and an adulterer whom is frequently seen hanging out with mostly naked women; their nudity isn’t depicted fully.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink large amounts of alcohol throughout the film.
Spiritual Content: Most of the characters are nominally Catholic and abide by church teachings even though they constantly disregard or violate them.
Other Negative Themes: Themes of violence, death, lust, greed, rape, and hatred.
Positive Content: Themes of justice.
Ridley Scott remains one of the most interesting blockbuster directors alive. His monumental sixty-year career in the film industry is one of the most exciting and wonderful in modern filmmaking that has produced notable works such as Alien, Blade Runner, Black Rain, Legend, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Martian. Even when he’s managing notable misfires like Prometheus, The Counselor, or Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott is one of the most talented directors around and manages to make his films visually impressive and epic. Few other directors are regularly capable of releasing more than one film a year; as he has done in both 2017 and 2021.
It’s for that reason that his newest film, The Last Duel, has been on my watchlist for the better part of two years now since it was announced. The film was lauded as an adaptation of Eric Jager’s 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France and very much takes pride in exploring that fascinating bit of real-life history.
In the year 1386, the King of France sanctioned the last legal trial-by-combat in their country’s history that ended in the death of one of its combatants. The practice hadn’t been enacted for a significant period of time before this event and would be outlawed shortly thereafter. Initially, it was taken for granted that a duel-to-the-death was an efficient way to establishing guilt. The belief was that God would take the side of the innocent man in a battle. In reality, people came to realize more often than not these duels were being won by the physically stronger opponent. Shockingly, God wasn’t overseeing these brutal wrestling matches and picking Godly winners.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Last Duel is acutely aware of this irony. His version of the story is a dramatization of the real-life historical events told from the perspectives of the three main actors in the story: Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comor).
The Last Duel does not hold back on immediately exploring the dark undertones of its story material. From the outset, we’re introduced to a brutal world of blood, torture, and combat. The two male leads are introduced as friends and veterans of France’s endless wars with Britain, established with the attempt to ride to the rescue of a line of women and children being beheaded by enemy soldiers. Quickly though, this deep friendship turns sour. We’re introduced to Jean’s new wife Marguerite, a wealthy noblewoman who is set to inherit a large plot of land and gift it to her husband as a dowry. When a tax mishap results in that land ending up in the wrong hands, we’re led down a path of political intrigue, greed, and bitter rivalry that ultimately results in Marguerite revealing to her husband that she was raped by Jacques.
Jean quickly sets about seeking revenge on the man who defiled his wife by requesting the king to sanction a duel to the death where he can reclaim her honor. As becomes evident though, the story goes much deeper than Jean’s noble story of heroism and honor. The gimmick of the script, if it can be said so cavalierly, is that the film is the same story but told through three different perspectives. We see the same events told three times from the internal perspective of the characters, what they see and how they react to the events of the plot.
What makes the stories interesting is how they diverge. Technically speaking, none of the characters are liars. They aren’t telling overt mistruths in their renditions of the story. Instead, their lies merely come by sins of omission. Both men think they’re nobler and romantic than they truly are. In reality, they’re both cruel, inconsiderate, egotistical killers and rapists who fancy themselves chivalrous knights.
By the end of chapter two, the audience is left to feel like they have a good sense of the ultimate point to the story. We see this rivalry between the two men became festered by a series of misunderstandings, bull-headedness, and slights made over decades until the night of the rape when suddenly all of their resentments boiled up at once. It seems as though the film is going for a kind of blind morality tale about the nature of perspective and the unknowability of truth, and whether or not systems of justice can mediate those vagaries.
The film’s full perspective doesn’t come into focus until the film’s third part that centers on Marguerite. From her perspective, we see the total facade of the two men boil away and see only their worst aspects absent their core beliefs about their own honor and romantic aspirations. Without the facade, they’re just agents of power who treat women and servants like property. Both act cruelly towards Marguerite and the brutal nature of the rape is put properly in focus in a way that neither of the male characters can understand.
Here The Last Duel becomes explicitly modern in its exploration of sexual attitudes and sexual violence towards women. It plays out like a modern condemnation of rape culture and the attitudes and systems in society that allow women to become victims of brutal sex crimes. Much of it bears witness to works like Alice Sebold’s harrowing memoir Lucky where a recent rape victim is embarrassed and prodded by authorities in the aftermath of a traumatizing event. You can see that reflected in the rape scene itself where the perpetrator in question seems to imagine he was being more seductive and romantic in his mind than he was perceived.
If it wasn’t clear what the film is saying, it even starts out Marguerite’s chapter by highlighting the word “Truth”. This third chapter is clearly where the film’s message comes into focus. It becomes clear this morality play is truly a story about the total failure of men and society to function in the absence of modernity. It plays up the cruelty, superstition, stupidity, brutality, and casual misogyny of the old world just to make it clear how awful women’s stations in medieval life were (and by extension highlights how bad women have it now).
By the end of the film, there is very little triumph in the final confrontation. Jean and Jacques are so thoroughly deconstructed that it’s hard to care which of them gets eviscerated in the dual. All we care about is that the victims caught in between the gears of power actually escape with their skin un-flayed.
Compelling as it is, the resolution stinks of postmodernism. For all his bravado, Scott has always been a postmodernist and a nihilist and that’s more evident here than now. He’s ever determined to perpetuate all of the modern myths of the dark ages, that it was a time of ceaseless barbarity, cruelty, and backward thinking. In reality, the medieval world wasn’t too dissimilar to our own. Most of the people alive then weren’t so stupid as to imagine that a woman could only conceive a child if she achieved an orgasm (which is an actual plot point in the movie). People didn’t just assume that bad things happened because God approved or disapproved of you. Scott’s chronological snobbery is showing. He falls into the long list of people standing on the philosophical shoulders of giants and thinking that everyone who came before him was an idiot.
Even so, I must credit Ridley Scott with his work here. For all his prejudice, he’s managed to craft his best film in a decade. He’s managed to direct a massive post-modern epic that remains deeply compelling and fascinating from the word go to its bittersweet finale. It shares in the cynicism and anger that subtextually root his entire filmography; his nascent anti-humanism that muses on the horror of bodily desolation and the frailty of human beings caught in the gears of societal systems like religion and politics. As a late entry in his career, The Last Duel feels appropriate for him to make given his previous work. If Gladiator was his way of standing at the top of his career bragging “are you not entertained?!”, The Last Duel is an older and more cynical vision. It’s the work of an old man looking at two other old men rolling around in the dirt killing each other for no reason while thinking they’re doing it in the name of God.
+ Beautiful but gloomy cinematography
+ Excellent script that manages to explore complex themes
+ Amazing performances by Affleck, Damon and Driver
- Overly simplistic themes
- Historical snobbery
The Bottom Line
The Last Duel is one of Ridley Scott's strongest films in the last decade! Set against his recent work like The Martian and All the Money in the World, this newest work shines as one of his most bittersweet, cynical, and fascinating works of epic storytelling since Kingdom of Heaven!