I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s medieval drama about justice and gender. The trailer looked interesting (once I accepted that some of the hairstyles in the film took some getting used to, to say the least), I liked the actors, and Scott knows how to do a good-looking movie. At the same time, the director has been rather hit and miss for me, in particular in the last ten, fifteen years or so. Obviously Alien and Blade Runner are stone cold classics, and I’ve enjoyed quite a few of his later films, but while the likes of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant looked gorgeous, they were saddled with scripts that were uneven at best and weak at worst, which in turn wasted the usually solid, at times even great acting in these films. Scott and his collaborators have often been better at the cinematic craft than at picking material deserving of the craftsmanship.
My doubts were amplified by what I had heard of the film’s plot: that it was based on historical material, that it was about the likely rape of Marguerite de Thibouville by Jacques Le Gris, a rival of her husband, and the trial by combat supposed to establish the truth of her accusations, and that it used a structure not unlike Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, likewise a story set hundreds of years in the past about a rape. Like Rashomon, The Last Duel is told from three perspectives: that of Marguerite’s husband Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, in a fairly untypical role), Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the man accused of rape, and finally of Marguerite (Jodie Comer) herself. In 2021, it’s impossible not to think of #MeToo and #BelieveHer in view of such material, even if the story is set in medieval France – and, frankly, I didn’t fully trust Scott to have the sensitivity to handle this material. I’ve often found his films to be visually arresting, and with the right script he has very much shown that he can produce classics, but I don’t think he’s got a knack for subtlety or a consistently good eye for subtext and implication. Which isn’t to say that Scott’s classics lack these, but I’ve rarely come away from one of his films with the impression that he in particular has something to say, though his instincts as a filmmaker can lead to great results when the material itself has something to say.
It then comes as a relief that in The Last Duel Scott has collaborated with smart, canny writers (the film was co-written by two of its stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, who has shown her skills as both director and writer with films such as Enough Said and Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and actors (in addition to Damon and Affleck, Driver and especially Comer deliver great performances). Add to this the impeccable craftsmanship that Scott and his crew deliver, and The Last Duel is a smart, multilayered film that works both as historical drama and as something much more intimate than most historical films deliver – although it is at times flawed exactly because it sets a very high standard for itself.
As is so often the case with Scott’s films, The Last Duel is gorgeous to look at. It is more muted and less overtly spectacular than some of the director’s earlier adaptations of material set in the distant past, but I greatly appreciated the absence of the kind of soaring cinematography and CGI vistas so beloved of many historical epics of the early 21st century. In this film, it often feels like Scott and his frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, simply packed their cast, crew and cameras into the nearest available time machine, went back to the 1300s and started filming. There is a grounded authenticity to The Last Duel that serves the material: we are here to witness a character-driven story that happens to be set in the Middle Ages, not gawk at knights and ladies and medieval combat made to look grittily cool.
The cinematic craft complements the script by Damon, Affleck and Holofcener, which blends the historical and the timeless in interesting ways. Some of the dialogue can feel a bit Renaissance Fair at times in its stilted formality, while other scenes (especially those featuring Affleck) use strikingly modern language, but the script comes together to evoke a time that is different from ours, while talking about themes that are as relevant now as they were several hundred years ago. There is a tension between the historical and the universal that allows us to watch this story not as a 1:1 match for modern times but rather a foil that, while it is set in a different cultural and historical context, still can speak to the present day.
The Last Duel‘s three-part structure allows us to see each character through their own eyes as well as those of others. We first see the story, starting with Jean de Carrouge’s early friendship with Jacques Le Gris and the souring of that friendship, unfold through de Carrouge’s eyes. An impressive fighter, de Carrouge is also a man who acts before he thinks – if he thinks at all. He is moody and not a little dull, and while Le Gris considers him a friend to begin with, de Carrouge soon comes to envy the other man. Le Gris is more charming, better liked and finds it easier to gain favour with Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), a nobleman who mainly seems to use his position much like a rich frat boy might, with plenty of food, wine and young, beautiful women to sate his every appetite. While de Carrouge gets to marry the smart, beautiful Marguerite, this does not much change his fortunes or his position. Instead, practically everything he wants for himself seems to go to Le Gris – so when de Carrouge, after having been away for a few days, returns to be told by Marguerite that while alone she was raped by Le Gris, he sees this as the last in a series of offenses against him personally. He challenges his rival to a duel to the death, through which God will supposedly reveal whether Le Gris is guilty of this crime.
The second part gives us Le Gris’ version of events- which, while not radically different, show us a social climber who comes to feel entitled to the things he receives, whether those are money, estate – or sexual favours, as Count Pierre shares everything and everyone at his disposal with Le Gris. Marguerite, however, is out of his reach; while other noblewomen seem more than open to Le Gris’ advances, she recognises that, while the man is charming, he is also arrogant, self-serving and not a little in love with himself. Le Gris, convinced that any woman of taste and means will eventually yield to his advances, uses de Carrouge’s absence to intrude on Marguerite and rapes her – though he seems to believe that her resistance was no more than the customary coyness women of her class are required to display.
Which takes us to the third part, Marguerite’s version – and, the film notes, the truth about what happened, including before and after the rape. Where Le Gris may believe that the sexual encounter was mutually desired (though to the audience even his version reads as rape), there isn’t a shadow of doubt in the third part as to what is happening. In general, while the first two parts allowed us to see the men in a critical light (de Carrouge is stubborn and not particularly smart, Le Gris is entirely focused on his own advancement and pleasure), Marguerite’s version is savagely critical of both. Especially de Carrouge, seen through her eyes, has little affection for his wife, seeing her as a potential pathway to more lands and a necessity if he is to produce an heir. Small variations on events as well as scenes entirely missing from the other accounts highlight how badly Marguerite, a smart, proud, honest woman, is served by her times and her environment. Even before her rape, she is little more than a commodity to her husband, and once the trial by combat is set into motion, she learns that if de Carrouge loses the duel, she will be tortured and burned at the stake, as such a result would indicate God’s judgment of her having lied. The duel is not about justice, nor even about Marguerite’s honour – it is about the honour of de Carrouge and Le Gris.
The Last Duel leaves no doubt about the crime at its centre, even showing it twice (a decision whose necessity could be argued). This is a story about a woman who is raped, but who is also abused by her society before and after the crime occurs. The film makes its position clear, spelling it out in ways that can at times feel didactic. (The Last Duel reserves subtlety for its characterisation, choosing to be entirely clear about its themes.) Which is why I found the film’s three-part structure a puzzling way to tell this particular story and make these particular points. Certainly, a film inspired by Rashomon does not have to tell the same story about the subjectivity of storytelling, but Rashomon is too iconic a film for another film to just swipe one aspect – its structure – and ignore the implications of this structure. The Last Duel doesn’t give us three versions to say that memory is subjective (though it is), it does so to say that one version of the truth, Marguerite’s, is true – and its understanding of truth seems to be absolute. Which raises the question: what are the first two parts, de Carrouge’s and Le Gris’? Are they lies, or are they something else?
This is where Scott’s direction and the style of the film are at odds with what the film is doing. The three versions differ in details, some of which are essential, but the presentation of each part is the same. There is no sign of subjectivity in the filmmaking. The Last Duel also doesn’t frame these three versions, other than with title cards saying that we’re about to see “The truth according to…”, so we don’t know: are these versions what the characters remember, or are they narratives consciously shaped by the characters to convince and to manipulate an audience? I’m not sure the film itself knows the answer to this question, or that the filmmakers would agree to an answer, as The Last Duel feels like it has a different take on this in some scenes than in others. My problem isn’t that the film is ambiguous in this matter: it’s that its structure raises potentially interesting questions about objectivity and subjectivity but its themes require that there is a true version of the story, and this produces a tension that isn’t always to the film’s benefit – because, to my mind, the film doesn’t seem to be aware of this tension.
In hindsight, The Last Duel does not make enough out of its three versions, because it does not seem to know, or agree with itself, what they mean. There are moments that benefit from reading these versions as flawed subjective accounts – such as a scene where Le Gris amuses himself with a courtesan at Count Pierre’s court, a scene that takes on a different, darker meaning later when we witness the rape – but as a whole, The Last Duel is dependent on the possibility of a wholly objective version. This tension is difficult to resolve, but I am put in mind of the Netflix limited series Unbelievable, which tells the story of a rape survivor. Unbelievable found ways of showing the character’s experience as subjective, working with perspective and editing, while never once leaving us in doubt as to the crime itself having happened. The style of The Last Duel, on the other hand, has nothing to say about subjectivity – which leaves a story where one part is proclaimed to be true and two others could be falsehoods or subjective or misremembered at something of a loss. What is the point of the first two parts? There are several possibilities, but Scott and his film don’t seem to have much of an opinion. The story could have been told in a more conventional, more linear format, and the film would have worked as well, and arguably it would have gained clarity more in line with its themes.
The Last Duel still works, and often very well at that, but the film ends up being structurally muddled. A clearer framing could have helped – such as showing the three parts to be character testimony at the trial – or possibly a more subjective style. Or, indeed, the film could have forgone its Rashomon-inspired structure, perhaps keeping it for a few key scenes only. In a lesser film, I would probably also mind less, but the impressive craftsmanship and the nuanced performances that allow the characters more complexity than the theme may suggest make me wish for a version of The Last Duel that had found a more convincing way of navigating the tension between its structure and its themes. This version of the story is mostly very good – but it is no Rashomon. Looking at the story Scott and his writers wanted to tell, perhaps it should not have tried to be.