Ridley Scott went from directing commercials to feature films with his 1977 debut, The Duelists. So there is a certain symmetry in his return, 44 years and many distinguished films later, to another deadly challenge fought on historic French soil in The last duel. With its striking visual paintings and precision storytelling, the earlier, low-budget work traced the rise of a slight affront to a consuming obsession in the Napoleonic era. The new large-scale film, set more than four centuries earlier, takes on a heaviness Rashomon structure to negotiate a much more legitimate point of honor. Only the last of the three perspectives from which the events are told gains strength.
This imbalance is somewhat intentional, as a key part of this real-world story is the distorting manner in which the violation of a woman is viewed as an affront to male vanity. Rape, in the Middle Ages, was more often a source of shame for a married woman than an injustice towards her, rather treated as a crime against property against her husband.
The last duel
The bottom line
An uneven epic of the Middle Ages #MeToo.
This point is painstakingly exposed in an elaborately structured script that spends too much time going through the overlapping narratives of the indignant husband and his former friend, the self-deceived rapist, before setting the record straight in letting the injured noble speak for herself.
Even if she hangs out in frustration before getting there, it’s her story and her bitterly fought victory – not that of men caught up in their petty rivalries, their belligerent pride and loyalty to France’s sly idiot of a adolescent monarch, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). It wasn’t until Jodie Comer stepped forward to give the drama’s most nuanced performance as Marguerite de Carrouges, a woman with the backbone to speak her truth and literally put her life on the line, that The last duel pulls on all cylinders.
While it seemed interesting to have original screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to write the male perspectives and recruit Nicole Holofcener to illuminate the female perspective, the division of responsibilities results in a two-and-a-half-hour long film. it seems unbalanced and unwieldy. There is also a lot of submission to contemporary sensibilities, often bordering on didacticism as the script touches on points of patriarchal privilege and victim blame.
Scott gets a bit lost in the weeds of various battles in which Marguerite’s husband Jean de Carrouges (Damon), a scarred-faced stoic warrior with a medieval mule, fights valiantly and selflessly for the king, the country and salary. Some of these bloody clashes get stuck on a repeated setting due to the multi-perspective device, becoming a blur of dates and place names on the battlefield that don’t add much to the central plot.
In contrast, more salient details regarding Jean’s friendship with racy Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and the latter’s betrayal out of ambition and greed, could have used bolder storytelling strokes and sharper lines. Le Gris’s loyalties are corrupted by his association with the king’s libertine cousin, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). The Earl recruits Le Gris to put his messy finances in order by abusing vassals against overdue rent in an economy still reeling from the plague that has decimated the workforce.
It was in one of these reshuffles that Le Gris struggled with a plot of plum land from Marguerite’s father, Robert D’Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), a property that Jean had negotiated as part of Marguerite’s dowry. It is also in this aspect that the film comments on women as assets for sale by men, with no nominal value of their own. Pierre, in a malicious whim, offers this land to Le Gris, as well as the command of a garrison commanded by the men of Jean’s family for generations.
Damon sticks to a gruff character – an austere, joyless man whose grumbling efforts on Marguerite don’t exactly inspire thoughts of marital bliss. Jean is the hero of his own side of the story because of his courage in battle and his willingness to stand up for what is right. He even tries to sue Le Gris and the count without scruples for the stolen land, being exonerated with Marguerite for a year.
But Jean is also a bit of an insensitive lump, a product of his time compared to his expectations for his wife, which are not entirely different from those for his breeding mare. He bursts with rage when he returns from the war to be greeted by Marguerite in the latest low-cut fashion in Paris. And when she shares the trauma of her assault by Le Gris while she was alone in the house, Jean’s first reaction is to talk about her own damage: “Can this man only hurt me ?!”
The role of the driver is more compelling, with Le Gris’s slippery surface charm revealing occasional clues of conflicting loyalty. Even when Jean, freshly knighted for his service on the battlefield, grows incisive with his old friend smug to be correctly called “Monsieur,” Driver suggests the slightest memory of their lost bond under the arrogant shade of Le Gris.
The crucial scenes depicting the rape show that Le Gris is brutally manipulative and hypocritical to such an extent that he seems capable of deceiving himself into believing his innocence. “We couldn’t help it,” he said to Marguerite, blaming her for her rape on leaving. Knowing that he can count on Pierre’s benevolent judgment in this matter, Le Gris confides to him that because Marguerite is a lady, “she made the usual protests”, but she was consenting. He’s a grade A bastard who makes the same bogus assertions of consent rapists continue to make today.
The cost of ordeal to Marguerite is written all over Comer’s mostly internalized but heartbreaking performance, and it is her determination to be heard in a society that demands women to be reserved and silent that gives the final act its power. To Holofcener’s credit, she conveys that strength without resorting to big, important speeches inappropriate at the time.
In an incisive scene, Jean’s mother (Harriet Walter, always acerbic) asks what makes Marguerite think she is so special, given that women experience rape and remain silent for the sake of their marriage and of their reputation. Marguerite’s failure to provide an heir in five years of marriage and her comment to a friend before the assault that Le Gris is attractive are held against her at the Palais de Justice, the latter even stoking Jean’s anger.
The special humiliations reserved for abused women by men in positions of authority whose instinctive response is to discredit them give the period piece a solemn contemporary relevance, even as Scott exaggerates the reaction plans of the women of the court tossing out uncomfortable glances at their husbands.
But Pierre’s clownish malevolence is far more exaggerated. Nothing says medieval France like Ben Affleck as a horny reveler with a mop and peroxide blonde beatnik goatee. Peter’s wine-soaked bacchanalia, frolicking with naked playmates while his pregnant wife sleeps, are inadvertently funnier than sleazy, especially when he urges frequent attendee Le Gris to join us: “Come in. here and take off your pants! It’s almost like Scott is trying on a bawdy little Pasolini for the size, and it’s a bad fit.
The director is more at ease once he brings Jean and Le Gris into the competition arena for France’s last sanctioned duel. Their fight to the death with spears, swords and daggers is filmed up close with a visceral charge that brings Scott back to Gladiator territory. This is also where Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score do Yeoman’s work. The CG enhancement to some cityscapes and crowd scenes might be less obvious, but overall this is a nice production, with particularly fine and detailed work from costume designer Janty Yates. (Can’t wait to see what she does with Scott’s looming haute couture homicide saga, Gucci House.)
Ultimately, The last duel is the touching tale of a woman’s quiet heroism that requires you to wade through many swashbuckling tales of honor, pride, and men’s wars to get there. Which amounts to perpetuating the patriarchy.
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