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Non-Review Review: The Last Duel

The Last Duel is a thorny and compelling medieval epic. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s undeniably part of the appeal.

The Last Duel is adapted from the book of the same name by historian Eric Jager. As its title implies, the film offers an account of the last judicial duel permitted by the Parlement of Paris. That duel was fought between two noblemen: Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. The challenge was offered over allegations that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife, Maguerite. The assumption was that divine authority would ultimately determine where the truth lay in the matter, that the victor in this mortal combat would ultimately be vindicated.

Duel narratives.

Naturally, the events that inspired The Last Duel remain contentious. Historians are not entirely sure what happened, and how much of the various accounts reflect the truth of what happened or have been shaped by the convenient narratives of the victors. The film, with a screenplay from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, leans into this ambiguity. The film is structured similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, outlining three separate accounts of the events leading up to the trial from the perspective of each of the key figures: Jean, Jacques and Maguerite.

The result is a film that touches on the blurred boundaries between history and narrative, and explores the way in which these sorts of stories are shaped by wounded pride and vain ego. It’s an uncomfortable and unsettling film, occasionally a little clumsy in its execution, but which grapples with big ideas.

The stock point of comparison for any Ridley Scott period epic is inevitably Gladiator. That is no surprise. Gladiator was a massively popular hit. It was a box office sensation and an awards darling. The film endures in popular memory, and so virtually ever poster and trailer for projects like Robin Hood or Exodus: Gods and Kings invokes that swords-and-sandal smash. However, The Last Duel is much closer in tone and theme to other historical epics in Scott’s filmography, specifically The Duelists and Kingdom of Heaven.

The Duellists was Scott’s first feature, and it holds up remarkably well. Like The Last Duel, it is a portrait of a strained relationship between two men over an extended period, as the characters come to hate one another and eventually challenge one another. The Last Duel begins on the day of the eponymous ritual combat, but it flashes back across years and decades to chart the evolving (and deteriorating) relationship between Jean and Jacques. Predictably, the two begin as friends and companions, only for that relationship to sour into resentment.

Notions of good and medieval.

Jean is a difficult man, to put it mildly. He is hot-headed and aggressive. He is confrontational and unreliable. Although he is born to nobility, he is insecure about it. The film never really digs too deeply into the character’s back story, but it is made clear that Jean has failed to establish a family and lineage. He had a wife and child, but both are dead. Jean is eager to have a family to which he might pass on his accomplishments and his title. He also very assured in asserting what is owed to him, usually determined by his own measure.

In contrast, Jacques is less assure. Jacques is not a nobleman. He comes to power and influence through patronage. He is friends with Jean, and an ally during military campaigns. However, he also strikes up a politically and socially advantageous relationship with Count Pierre d’Alençon. Jacques is eager to please, and constantly desperate to prove himself. Never having held wealth or power, he is more conciliatory. He is easier to get along with than Jean. Pierre resents Jean for his arrogance and his posturing, but also because he is “no f&!king fun.”

It’s all a bit arch.

Naturally, tension simmers between Jean and Jacques as their fortunes turn. Pierre’s frustrations with Jean deny Jean the advancement that he feels he is owed. Jacques’ hard work impresses Pierre, and leads to his promotion. Jacques comes to see Jean as something of a social liability, while Jean is embittered by his friend’s success. The Last Duel frames this ruptured relationship in terms both social and economic. One key moment in the schism comes when Jean claims a castle from his future father-in-law as a dowery, only for Pierre to claim it in tax and gift to Jacques.

As tends to be the way with Ridley Scott films, The Last Duel is notable for its impressive attention to detail. The work of production designer Arthur Max is impressive, creating a world that feels inhabited and shaped by use and ritual. As is the style with a lot of modern medieval epics, everything in The Last Duel feels dirty and used. However, Scott is always clear about how and why that has been used. Scott makes a point to emphasise the mechanics of ritual: the clothe used to wipe the wax decanter used to make a seal, the passing of the blessing of a matrimonal ceremony, the signing of documentation on collecting a tithe.

Let him mullet over.

Scott is fascinated with the rituals and the rhythms that underpin medieval life, paying careful attention to religious rites and official documentation. The movie opens with each of the three characters getting dressed for the eponymous confrontation, suggesting that the chivalrous world these characters inhabit is driven as much by pageantry as by honour. There’s a sense of performativity to all of this, an understanding that it doesn’t matter what actually happens, only that it is granted a sheen of propriety through ceremony.

The Last Duel is ultimately a story about narrative, a tale with three versions of the truth, each shaped by the ego and the vanity of the narrator in question. So much of the film is about wounded pride, and simmering resentment. There’s a brutal cynicism to the film’s worldview, arguing that the truth is often determined by those who hold the power to enforce it. Jean and Jacques’ feud is driven by political and economic realities as much as it is by the actual human tragedy that Maguerite has suffered. In many ways, the assault on Maguerite is treated by Jean as nothing more than justification.

The truth is black and white.

When his mother asks why he publically challenged Pierre, a humiliation that will demand a response, Jean is certain that he holds the moral high ground. “It was right,” he tells his mother, an idea anchored in nothing more than his own self-righteousness. His mother bluntly retorts, “Right. Right? There is no right, only the power of men.” After all, this is what The Last Duel boils down to. All of the anger and hatred between Jean and Jacques is distilled to a brutal public spectacle, with the winner retroactively vindicated. The strongest man wins, but it is granted a veneer of respectability through ritual and custom.

What elevates The Last Duel is an understanding that the truth is often lost in the struggles of those who hold the power to control the narrative. Each of the three chapters is titled “the truth according to…” each of the film’s three protagonists. However, the film leaves Maguerite’s version of events until the end, and the text fades so that only “the truth” remains visible. The Last Duel suggests that its Maguerite who has the most complete and comprehensive view of events, the most impartial understanding of the forces that led to this moment. However, because she doesn’t hold any power, that does not matter.

Been and Jean.

This is a potentially controversial topic, dealing with issues that are obviously still resonant: the way in which narratives are shaped by those with enough standing to manipulate them, the way in which the victims of these sorts of crimes are often marginalised and ignored, the tendency to reduce these sorts of issues to grotesque public spectacles. One of the smarter and more interesting choices within The Last Duel is its decision to avoid turning the plot’s sexual assault into a game of “he said, she said”, shrewdly understanding that both Jacques and Maguerite ultimately know what happened, even if they’d frame it differently.

The Last Duel suffers slightly in its pacing. This is particularly true in the film’s first act. In the movie’s opening forty-five minutes, Scott attempts to offer both Jean’s version of events and a clear enough overview that the audience can get sense of the larger picture. The subsequent sections focusing on Jacque and Maguerite flow considerably easier, in large part because of energy that the film has already spent in that first stretch. In its opening act, The Last Duel can feel like it’s straining to cover as much ground as possible, mapping out narrative real estate that it will develop at its leisure.

Following a health-and-safety add-visor-y.

Still, Scott is a director whose work is never less than clear and focused. If nothing else, his postproduction work on All the Money in the World was an impressive piece of directorial craft. At eighty-three years of age, with four decades of experience and over two dozen movies behind him, Scott remains an efficient filmmaker. (Indeed, one gets the sense that Scott’s reputation was somewhat sabotaged by having the good fortune to direct both Alien and Blade Runner in the extremely early stretch of his career.) The Last Duel isn’t a career high for Scott, but that’s a testament to the director’s other accomplishments.

It helps that Scott has assembled an incredibly talented cast. Adam Driver is one of the most talented leading actors of his generation, and the script gives him a lot of juicy material to play. Jodie Comer is similarly compelling as Maguerite, and is able to hold her ground even during the long stretches where the film is very deliberately marginalizing her character to underscore her themes. Ben Affleck is the standout from the film’s supporting cast as Pierre. It’s a role that allows Affleck to have fun on screen, which has become increasingly rare in the past few decades. It’s as intoxicating as Pierre is intoxicated.

Count on him.

The Last Duel is a messy and complicated movie that wrestles with big ideas without pulling its punches. It’s reassuring to know that Scott remains as sharp a filmmaker as ever.

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