A Matter of Perspective – The Last Duel

Nearly 25 years ago, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, already decently well-known actors, made their breakthrough to superstardom with Good Will Hunting, which the childhood friends co-wrote and starred in. The pair won the Oscar for Original Screenplay, along with Robin Williams winning Best Supporting Actor. The collaboration placed them squarely on Hollywood’s A-list, a position which neither has relinquished. But somehow, some way, the two hadn’t joined forces for another script since, until now.

Directed by Ridley Scott, The Last Duel finds American cinema’s dynamic duo back in front of the camera and behind the proverbial typewriter together, crafting a thrilling, compelling drama about honor, justice, and privilege, centered around the last legal judicial duel to take place in Medieval France. Superbly acted, with rich cinematography, strong dialogue, and amazing production values, I can easily see this film competing for some more shared Academy gold for these two, and more.

However, with all that said, this could have been the best movie of the year for me, had the story not taken one crucial wrong turn. This film has a lot, a LOT, going for it, but this one error robs the project of a large amount of its credibility, to the point where I can only say that I really enjoyed it, rather than completely fawning over it like I have other works in 2021.

The central conflict is with two noble squires in the French legions during the Hundred Years’ War. Under the oversight of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) via King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), a rivalry develops between Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). The Count favors Le Gris in almost all things, particularly military assignments, land deals, and general patronage. The up and down bad blood between the two comes to a head when Carrouges is away on business, and Le Gris enters his home and rapes his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, last seen in Free Guy). Carrouges demands satisfaction in the form of a duel to the death, with the victor determined to be chosen by God as the honest man.

You can tell how well this film is presented by the fact that it begins with the onset of the duel itself. There is no suspense to whether or not the trial by combat will take place (honestly the title would make no sense if it didn’t). But Ridley Scott is clearly confident in the script he was given by Damon and Affleck, and in the performing chops of his main cast, so he’s comfortable starting in media res and flashing back for context, knowing it won’t dilute the proceedings, and that’s very refreshing these days.

And even from this opening tease, you can see some of the superlative production aspects on full display. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (coming off his Oscar nomination for News of the World), makes great use of the space of the dueling arena, adding a grand sense of scale for what must become the most intimate of moments, a figurative and literal dance with death. The hair and makeup team go to great lengths to show Carrouges as having gone to seed, while Le Gris is devilishly handsome, right down to the almost clichéd facial hair, and polished from head to toe. The costuming more than establishes the stakes, not just for the moment, but for the aftermath, with a black-clad Marguerite prepared for at least one funeral depending on the result. The duelers are also given armor with honestly incredibly impractical helmets that only cover half their faces, but it still looks really cool. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score swells at just the right moment, preceded by creeping percussion. This has all the earmarks of a high-budget extravaganza that the Academy just eats up.

From there, the film is divided into three chapters, offering the point of view of the three main characters, leading up to the fateful attack. This, too, is something the Academy loves, a structure that pays homage to classic cinema, in this case Rashomon. Depending on the version of the story being told, we see Carrouges as either a noble and honorable knight who has been wronged despite following the law, or a whiny brat who feels entitled to treatment he has neither earned nor deserves. Either way, Damon’s performance is 100% committed, delivering with full force on every angle, whether he’s subdued or consumed with rage, righteous or otherwise.

The same can be said for Driver, alternately playing Le Gris as friend and antagonist to Carrouges but never betraying the differences in characterization. In one version, he tries to act as a bridge between Carrouges and the Count, who have never gotten along, before becoming a sniveling sycophant. In his own interpretation of events, he’s a dedicated servant who built himself up from nothing, and therefore believes he’s earned a bit of deference. Funnily enough, in all versions, Affleck plays the Count as a hedonistic popinjay, and it’s honestly kind of hysterical. I’m sure he enjoyed chewing the scenery like it was a Las Vegas buffet, because he certainly came across that way, adding a frat boy-esque levity to the film’s seriously heavy material.

And then there’s Comer, giving the strongest performance of her young career as Marguerite. In all interpretations, she’s a beauty beyond comprehension, and an object of both desire and near-worship. But she always manages to show that she’s the smartest one in the room, never manipulating the situation, but demonstrating just enough that she knows what’s really going on, no matter what she’s told. There’s a slyness to the performance that really stands out, and given that this is a story about rape, it’s more than crucial to take her seriously.

Sadly, however, this is also the film’s near-fatal flaw. The beauty of Rashomon and other stories like it is that you never really get the full picture. It’s all word of mouth, subjective recollection, and contradictory accounts. It allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions and interpret the film in any number of ways. Even when you think you have the definitive version of events, there’s always enough doubt left behind to make you question everything. That nuance is what makes this narrative device so rich for story.

But here, unfortunately, the film takes sides in a way that I feel not only ruins the fun of the concept but also retroactively undercuts the rest of the proceedings. Each of the three chapters begins with a title slate, reading “The Truth, According to…” whichever character is in focus, be it Carrouges, Le Gris, or Marguerite. When Marguerite’s version is told, the on-screen text intentionally fades out, leaving only “The Truth.”

As my stepdad often says, “Ten ‘attaboys’ are negated by one ‘aww shit.'” This is the “aww shit.” I think I understand why the choice was made, because as a direct parallel to our own times, it’s absolutely necessary to take accusations of sexual assault seriously, and far too often women are ignored. There’s a salient point to be made that we really haven’t come that far in 800 years, as Marguerite’s accusation is met with instant doubt and dismissal from men in power, from Le Gris, to the Count, to a courtroom, to the King himself, and all with an intentional degree of absurdity. Apart from his mother, who only brings it up for the cruelest of reasons, really only Carrouges himself believes her, and even he treats her plight more like an attack on property rather than a violation of another human being that he supposedly loves. You can even argue that there’s some self-awareness in the decision, as Affleck has dealt with a few slings and arrows in the #MeToo era, and this might be his way of attempting to declare himself an ally. Whatever the reason, I have little doubt that it was well-intentioned.

But here’s the problem. For one thing, it’s intellectually dishonest to definitively side with any one person in this triad dispute. This happened centuries ago, and there’s little historical record about the facts of the case. In pre-Crusades France, the judicial duel was a last resort to “prove” in the eyes of God who was right, with the result interpreted as divine intervention. If Carrouges wins, then Marguerite was telling the truth, and Le Gris was a rapist. If Le Gris wins, then he’s innocent, and both Carrouges and Marguerite die, the former in the duel itself and the latter burnt at the stake for levying false accusations. I believe her story because the characters are so richly drawn and well-acted, with some incredible staging and treatment in the varying scenes. Still though, it’s one thing to believe a story, it’s quite another to assert that this one person is telling the full truth when there’s no way to confirm it.

Secondly, by having Marguerite’s story go last, declaring her version as “The Truth” renders the last hour and a half relatively meaningless. It doesn’t matter how Carrouges saw things or how Le Gris saw them, including the part where Le Gris fully admits he had rough, dominant sex with Marguerite but passed it off as love with her only giving “token” protests to maintain plausible deniability that she didn’t want him, too. This is the allegedly guilty party saying flat out he did it, but that he felt it was consensual and within decorum. But that, along with every piece of nuance, is thrown out the window by this stylized declaration. Everything you saw up until this point? The movie’s telling you it doesn’t matter.

As it turns out, everyone’s a piece of shit except Marguerite. She’s brilliant, resourceful, and the only person capable of keeping the Carrouges estate from falling under. But everyone else? Awful. Her friends call her a liar and a whore. Her mother-in-law is intolerably cruel. Carrouges only cares about status and his feud with Le Gris. Even the duel itself is seen by Marguerite as him basically having another dick measuring contest with her life on the line. Le Gris is a pompous, overconfident womanizer and eventual rapist. Only she is pure, only she is innocent, and by fading out that text, Ridley Scott et al are saying that this is the only version that counts, retroactively wasting our time.

It’s sad, because there was a way to do this without betraying the rest of the film. Both Carrouges and Le Gris’ version of events start at a battle where the former saves the latter’s life, with the first interpretive diversion coming with them disagreeing on how the fight even got started and what necessitated Carrouges saving Le Gris in the first place. Events then proceed in an orderly fashion, with moments of differing opinion until the assault. Marguerite’s story starts with her wedding to Carrouges, which is about halfway through his story.

There’s no reason why Marguerite had to begin there, other than that being the point where she enters into the main narrative of the men. But if the point is to contradict the men, why start her tale on their terms? Instead, why not start around the same time, perhaps show what she was doing as her path came close to intersecting with Carrouges and Le Gris? It’s clearly a story decision, so why not make a different one that saves the premise?

Alternately, instead of starting Marguerite’s “truth” at her wedding, why not start it at the day of the rape itself? You still get her perspective on the core incident of the story without recasting and retconning everything that happened up to that point, and it wouldn’t dull the impact one bit (plus you’d save about 15 minutes of run time). Or even better, why not lean into the themes at play in this society, and start at the duel? That way, “The Truth” is whatever the outcome of the duel is, which is how the law interpreted the events at the time.

Because, on top of everything else, there’s one really cool bit of production value that I noticed that feels like it was intentional, and would have elevated the film to the 2021 pantheon if it had been fully played out. This is a major point for the costuming department, as throughout all three stories, whenever one of our main three is wearing black, they’re doing something bad. When Le Gris commits the assault, he’s in black. When Carrouges pisses and moans in public, calling out Le Gris and the Count for their perceived insults, he’s in black.

Marguerite is only in black once, as I mentioned earlier, at the duel. Imagine starting her story there, with her standing chained on a perch, doomed to die should her husband fall, and she’s also wearing this symbolic color that the rest of the film has hinted was a sign of wrongdoing regardless of who’s telling the story. How awesome would that have been? It adds just a hint of ambiguity to the climax without truly calling her version of events into question. It adds another layer of nuance, with her having just a shred of self-doubt about how she handled the aftermath of her trauma. It adds so much depth to the modern day parallels where victims all over the world second guess themselves as they seek justice. It would have been such an amazing, yet subtle, visual metaphor to finish setting the stage for the titular battle.

But instead, they just picked a side for us, robbing viewers of the chance to process this in their own way, like they didn’t trust their own audience to sympathize with the victim. It’s a quick move, but it’s beyond frustrating because it renders so much of the goodwill built up by the film’s character study as utterly moot. The rest of the movie is unquestionably brilliant, from the acting, to the screenplay, to Scott’s direction, to the production elements, but this one decision stops it from being truly amazing. The Last Duel spent two and a half hours creating something extraordinary, but squandered a large chunk of it in five seconds.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you throw down the gauntlet to defend your loved one’s honor? How many prestige films is Adam Driver going to put out this year? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “A Matter of Perspective – The Last Duel

  1. Interesting flaw – yeah if we know the truth absolutely, it diminishes our investment in the plot. It’s kinda like life that way too🧐 Sound like a good movie but with this crucial flaw.

    Like

    1. I’d go even further. If it weren’t for this one mistake, we’d be talking Best Picture quality here. Just about everything else – even the stuff people playfully make fun of, like the helmets and the haircuts on Affleck and Damon – is superlative and feels organic to the story. Just this one knock, though, and sadly, it’s a big one.

      Liked by 1 person

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