The Last Duel and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Studios
Directed by Ridley Scott
It’s officially catch-up month over her as I scramble to fit a few more reviews in before the New Year and try to catch up on some of the things I missed, so hey; why not two Ridley Scott movies back to back? While House of Gucci had a modest amount of box office success despite some rather underwhelming reviews, the same cannot be said for this film which came and went with barely a notice from general audiences. Did we all miss out on a fantastic gem that deserved a lot more attention at the box office, or is this just a really bad year for the venerable director? Let’s find out!!
The story takes place in Medieval France and follows three people whose fates are inexorably and cruelly intertwined. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a simple if narrow-minded warrior in the French army who takes a wife, The Lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and while there are some advantages to the marriage in terms of property and a bit of esteem in the court, he’s still very much outclassed by his friend, the Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). He doesn’t come from a family of warriors or is in an advantageous marriage, but still, he pulled himself up through cunning and political maneuvering to become a chief adviser to the nearby lord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). The tensions between Jean and Jacques escalate as Jacques curries more favor with the community while Jean is just kinda being sad in his castle with his wife and mother, and it all comes to a head when Jean returns from the capital to find his wife in an utterly distraught state. She says that while he was gone, Jacques broke in and raped her which Jacques denies vociferously. Being a man of honor (and one that doesn’t listen to his wife), Jean challenges Jacques to a duel to the death, with the caveat being that if Jean falls in battle then Marguerite will be burned at the stake. With so much riding on something as arbitrary as a fight with swords, can justice truly be meted out for Marguerite? Is there more to this story than any of the three participants are willing to share and is there more to the duel than meets the eye? First Joan of Arc, and now this? Seriously, Middle Ages! Get your act together!
Ridley Scott yelling at Millennials is not a good look (especially with a Pandemic depressing box office totals across the board) and it’s a shame that he has to come off as so bitter because he really did make a great movie here. It’s not without its flaws to be sure, but it’s certainly more coherent than House of Gucci, and Scott’s ability to direct actors is no less evident here. The multiple perspectives from which we see events are a perfect fit for the themes of the movie which discuss trust, honor, justice, and loyalty; all pushed through and warped by oppressive systems that aren’t as far from our modern-day world as we’d like to think. It’s a rather humbling story about the limits of any one person’s ability to understand themselves, let alone the world, and how privilege can often make self-reflection an even more insurmountable task. And hey, it also has sword fights; bloody ones, too! What movie about the darkness within mankind and the systems that nurture such inhumanity ISN’T made instantly better with sword fights?
The movie itself is broken into three parts and we will look at each of them here to really get a sense of what the movie does well and where it starts to falter. We start with Jean’s story which is the most straightforward and has to do the most work in setting up the world as well as the central conflict of the movie. The first thing of note from this perspective is its cinematography and attention to detail; both of which are quite stunning to see. Everything from the costuming and sets to the props and performances breathe a lot of life into the proceedings with everything feeling appropriately weighty and grimy. I couldn’t say for sure just how authentic any of this is (my knowledge of medieval times is mostly informed by Monty Python and Age of Empires II), but it puts forth a convincing case for itself and it at least feels authentic enough with the actors doing a great job of carrying the weight of these times. The sheer arduousness of simple everyday tasks as well as the stifling emotional weight of chivalry and gender roles is etched into the faces of every character; especially Jean who is by all accounts a brute, though not so much in terms of cruelty but in temperament and outlook. He doesn’t have the finesse to navigate courtly situations and only gets by due to his abilities as a soldier. You don’t know if he even has dreams outside of the slaughter of his fellow man because it’s all he knows to do and is perhaps the best thing for him to be doing in these times. It paints a very sad portrait of a man who feels trapped despite having very little; fighting tooth and nail for his fiefdom that is ever-shrinking around him as the world changes in ways that he can’t keep up with. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what leads him to request a duel to the death; something that even the people of this time see as primitive and barbaric but is the only way towards justice that Jean can see for himself. It’s a compelling portrait to be sure, though this section of the movie does suffer from some pacing issues as it has the most work to do as far as fleshing out the world and it can feel a bit tedious when the movie gets too enamored with its authenticity.
So throughout Jean’s story, the movie is well-executed and expertly crafted, but not exactly the most gripping of narratives due to a laggy pace. Once we get into Jacques’ side of the story is when things start to turn into some very interesting directions, though this is also the most flawed section of the movie. Now obviously this isn’t the first movie to go the Rashomon route with a story being retold from different perspectives, but it is a great use of that type of structure and it’s deeply embedded with the themes of the movie. In the first act, we see Jean as he sees himself; how a lot of people see themselves frankly. The put upon everyman who can’t figure out why the world is against him and sees himself as better and more deserving of the things that everyone else takes for granted. In reality, this is never truly the case as Jean’s self-centered evaluation of the world is missing a lot of key elements and personality flaws that are on full display when we see things from Jacques’s point of view. Jacques, in contrast to Jean’s old-fashioned attitudes, is worldly and affable; loyal to his friend, but has an understanding of political realities that Jean just simply can’t comprehend. It’s an interesting contrast between the two and the actors do a great job of building that rift between them over time; starting as friends and ending as bitter enemies that didn’t happen because of THE EVENT at the center of the movie but was merely brought to a head by it. Where the movie stumbles though, is that I don’t think the movie quite captures his warped perspective on THE EVENT that incites the rest of the movie. Where you expect there to be ambiguity or simply a cut to leave it up in the air, there’s little room for doubt as to what happened in that room and it feels a bit jarring to witness; especially since we absolutely have to see it in the next part of the movie and therefore are forced to sit through a very difficult scene twice. Perhaps I’m missing something significant, and maybe an overtly “romantic” version of THE EVENT would have been even more uncomfortable, but to me, the Rashomon style lends itself well to unreliable narrators and the third act does a great job of shattering our preconceived notions of everything else in the movie, so the decision to keep this very grim scene as the “sanitized” version within Jacques’s mind felt like a misunderstanding of the movie’s central conceit.
Despite the movie doing a great job of bringing the characters to life and using its Rashomon style storytelling effectively, it ended Jacques’s story on such a note that the final act had a tall order to try and recover from it. Thankfully Marguerite’s side of the story is by far the most compelling and it’s where the movie all comes together. It is by far the bleakest what with the romanticism, what little there was, being stripped from the story as the selfish bitterness comes into stark relief. From her perspective, we see all the work she does that went unsung by the first two versions of the story, and she is merely an object of affection for the two men who don’t see anything else that she does. The lies that Jean, as well as Jacques, tell themselves are brought into even starker relief as we see an entire half of society that they are completely oblivious to as the women in their lives exist as real human beings outside of their purview and that repressive atmosphere is palpable as Marguerite navigates this harsh life and the men in it. It paints such a dour picture of its characters, particularly Jean, that it threatens to become unbearably grim, but none of it feels without purpose, and the emotional beats hit in just the right way. The duel itself is similarly bleak with no truly great outcome. We know the truth about these two now and even the clearly BETTER of the two is hard to root for given what Marguerite’s perspective has shown us which is a pretty disquieting indictment of the Patriarchal systems that still exist today and hurt men often as much as it hurts women. I’m not a fan of bleakness or cruelty in movies, but it helps significantly if it feels constructive and is moving us towards something better. It’s far too late for the people in this movie to learn from their mistakes, but the film being as relevant as it is means that there is still something to be gained from it; a cautionary tale if ever there was one.
I guess I can understand Ridley Scott’s frustration with this movie doing as poorly as it did at the box office considering how much effort clearly went into it, but it’s definitely been a critical darling and I’m included to agree. Perhaps not the best film I’ve seen this year, but it is a beautifully crafted story that sticks with you after the credits roll. Whatever issues I had with the pacing and some of the story decisions in the middle can’t outweigh the genuine greatness of everything else on display, and I would definitely recommend checking it out when you get the chance. Sure, Ridley Scott will still resent you for not paying fifteen bucks in the middle of a Pandemic to see it, but the sooner he gets over his frustrations with “cell phones” and “the youth”, the sooner he can get back to making more great movies like this.