I love me some Ridley Scott. From Alien to Gladiator, the man has always found a way to make the largest scale story feel personal and targeted. He’s tried his hand at a new form of onscreen trickery this time, and while the story is a famous tale of knighthood and honor in France the route that Scott has chosen is closer to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon than anything else.
Most films tell you right up front what they’ll be, but few are so blunt as The Last Duel. Told in three chapters, we open on “The Truth according to Jean de Carrouges.” Jean (Matt Damon) is a squire in service to the king, a hardened warrior that imagines himself one of the greatest fighters to ever live. His bravery, however, is seen to only match his lunkheaded sensibilities. Chapter two, “The Truth according to Jacques Le Gris,” portrays Jean as a loving-but-dimwitted man that has no true standing in the court of his lord. It is Jacques (Adam Driver) that holds Count Pierre’s (Ben Affleck) heart; carousing and bedding myriads of women while building their financial empire seems to be all they care for. These three men all demand what they want and attempt to take it, with friendships and fortunes being won and lost in the process.
But then there’s chapter three – “The Truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges.” This title flashes onscreen and then all but two words fade away, revealing Ridley’s trick and the fulcrum point of the film. The tale is one of lust and revenge, as Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and Jean accuse Jacques of rape. For Jean this is a matter of pride, his view being only that a piece of his property was violated. For Jacques it is a matter of ego, as he truly believed that his violation of Marguerite was consensual. The lady’s view, however, is that of many women throughout history and many living in our modern world. She’s depressed, as she cannot conceive a child, and sexually frustrated because she cannot achieve orgasm in the boring sex she has with the husband that purchased her. Life is a series of events that are building to a hope of freedom. Marguerite’s life hangs in the balance as Jean begins to fight Jacques to the death, but her intention was not to place herself in harm’s way.
It’s this performance that makes the film undeniably impressive. Many only know her from Free Guy, a comedic action film from earlier this year that’s frankly a better time if you’re tipsy (she’s great in it). Here, though, she’s given a chance to really show off. From Jean’s point of view she is the doting wife, slavishly loyal and supportive of him in every endeavor in the same way as he sees himself as a armored hero. Jacques sees her as desperate for intelligent interaction, and he comes to believe that this means sex with him. Marguerite, however, is much more complicated. She shines in her own chapter, navigating between her legitimate loyalty and trust in her husband despite his brutish dismissal of her kindnesses and her flirtatious view of Jacques. Her husband irritates her and is a bore, while Le Gris is an oafish flirt that she views as untrustworthy. Both come to be revealed as their true selves, and it culminates in a gripping duel while Marguerite sits atop a pyre, her fate clear should her husband lose. Comer pulls off one heck of a magic trick between these three roles, moving from doe-eyed devotee to simpering temptress to hardened survivor within such quick and impressive cuts. Her scenes with Driver are positively brave, the sexual assault portrayed graphically from multiple viewpoints in a way that boils away any thoughts of romance and returns the brutality of the act. It’s almost impossible to watch, and the film makes its point with this moment.
That’s not to dismiss some of the other performances in the film. Ben Affleck is magnificent; anachronistic and somehow appropriate in the same fell swoop. Driver and Damon are doing their thing, and the gravitas they bring to the proceedings is up to par with everything I’ve come to expect from them. The fact that almost everyone is in the most bizarre-looking, period-appropriate styles makes it even more exciting to watch. The film’s hair, makeup, and costuming departments had one task – make all of these hot people look weird as hell. For the most part they accomplish it, though you can see them give up on Comer and Driver and decide to just let them be attractive while everyone else gets either a mullet or a bowl cut. It’s a delightfully bright film, with everything from hair to landscapes looking vibrant despite their grey, brown, and black appearances.
Harry Gregson-Williams takes scoring duties for Scott, an unexpected move from his taste. The director prefers sweeping, traditional scores for most of his films. He’s made exceptions, but this is one that seems to take a page from Daniel Hart’s score for David Lowery’s The Green Knight. It’s romantic, but choral in was that feel like the 21st century leaking through the seams. It’s wholly appropriate, but fades into the background unless isolated. A shame, since what Gregson-Williams has crafted is rather entertaining to listen to and has moments where it makes or breaks the scene.
Folks, The Last Duel is an impressive effort on all parts. It’s gorgeously designed, beautifully acted, horny as hell, and surprisingly poignant. Taking a true story from 14th century France to discuss the problems women STILL face when talking about sexual assault is not where I saw Ridley Scott going, but it’s a brave move and is something I urge everyone to see.
The Last Duel is currently in theatres.