A film review by Craig J. Koban October 28, 2021

Rank: #10


2021, R, 152 mins.

Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges  /  Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges  /  Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris  /  Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d'Alençon  /  Marton Csokas as Crespin  /  Harriet Walter as Nicole de Bouchard  /  Clare Dunne as Celia

Directed by Ridley Scott  /  Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Nicole Holofcener, based on the book by Eric Jager

The Ridley Scott directed and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-scripted THE LAST DUEL is an intoxicating and compellingly told RASHOMON styled medieval historical drama that ambitiously and intricately tells a multi-perspective take on a horrible wrong.  

Scott is absolutely no stranger to these types of lavish and epic productions that tap into the distant past (see his Oscar winning GLADIATOR and his terribly underrated KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), which makes his overall approach in adapting Eric Jager's non-fiction book all the more thankless, mostly because it's not an action or spectacle driven historical epic (even thought it has elements of that).  The film is more character driven and focuses on how 14th Century feudal norms that governed male/female relationships speak towards similar ills today.  It's not too often that a film of this scale and size serves as a scathing critique of toxic masculinity run amok, which is why Scott (as well as his writers and stars in Damon and Affleck) deserve kudos here for really shaking up the genre and doing something unique within it. 

THE LAST DUEL takes its tale from the fact based incident involving the last officially recognized judicial duel fought in 14th Century France.  In December of 1386, Norman knight Jean de Carrouges fought squire Jacques Le Gris in a duel to the death, which erupted due to the former accusing the latter of viscously raping his wife, Marguerite.  Whichever man was alive at the end of the duel was declared the winner as a sign of God's will, but if Jean de Carrouges failed then his wife would be killed via burning at the stake for her phony accusations.  What's most endlessly captivating about THE LAST DUEL is that it plays out in multiple chapters that each feature multiple different prerogatives from the three people in question, during which time we get to see the build up to the rape and its aftermath in question and how these players got wrapped up in it.  Because we see everything played three times over, it would be easy to label THE LAST DUEL as repetitious in nature, but to the contrary it creates a richly complex portrait of the twisted gender norms of its era, not to mention that the men's recollections of what happened are not entirely accurate or to be trusted.   

Early in the film we meet a deeply prideful, but down on his luck Jean (Matt Damon, in one of the most garish mullets in movie history) as a knight of fairly distinguished battlefield reputation, but he's in financial dire straights.  His BFF in Jacques (Adam Driver) are vassals to Count Pierre d'r Alencon (a borderline unrecognizable Affleck), but he seems to have his friendship eyes locked more on Jacques, which creates an obvious and predicable wedge of mistrust between the two friends and allies.  Because Jean is unmarried and in desperate need of cash, he opts to wed Marguerite (FREE GUY's Jodie Comer), who's the daughter of a well off landowner that has loyalties to the king.  Jean yearns to conceive a male heir above everything else, but his passionless attempts in bed with his new trophy wife are failures, which causes riffs between them.  Concurrent to this is his frustration in Jacques rising up the ranks of power and influence alongside Pierre, but when the pair try to reconcile their differences Jacques becomes instantly smitten with Marguerite.  Fully believing that he's in love with her (and falsely believing that she reciprocates such feelings back), Jacques makes a move on her while she's alone and defenseless at home.  When Jean returns and shockingly discovers his betrothed's rape claims, he immediately springs into legal action and unavoidably to the aforementioned duel.    



Again, part of what makes the journey that THE LAST DUEL takes viewers on so enthralling is its examination of this horrible crime against this woman from the mindsets of Marguerite, Jean, and Jacques.  Affleck, Damon, and their co-writer in arms in Nicole Holofcener begins with Jean's take, which seems credible enough...at least initially.  He's shown as a deeply devout defender of all things France and one that has spilt blood in his nation's honor, but he's been left virtually penniless in said pursuits.  What really begins to gnaw away at him is how he has to deal with Count Pierre's oppressive tax collectors, with one of them awkwardly being Jacques himself.  Plus, the Count takes great relish in molding Jacques in his own twisted image and finding equal pleasure in making Jean look like a buffoon in public.  Left with nothing and becoming seriously estranged from Jacques, Jean marries Marguerite for the money and chance of his bloodline continuing, but he appears to be duty bound in serving as her protector, which makes him take matters into his own hand after she's raped. 

From here, THE LAST DUEL shifts towards the accused in Jacques, and his take on Jean, their friendship, and his motive with his wife could not be anymore different.  We see how Jacques becomes a close confidant of Pierre, whose daily regal life seems preoccupied with nourishing his alcoholism and nights of adulterous flings with multiple anonymous women.  From here we see Jacques' advances towards Marguerite via his eyes, which comes off significantly more innocent and pure hearted.  When we see his chance meeting with her while Jean is away, it begins with tension, but then seems to build towards a sexual encounter that she doesn't entirely turn away (again, from his perspective).  This culminates in the story reaching Jean's impression of the events, and it's here where THE LAST DUEL radically shifts gears, not only in the portrayal of Jacques, but also of Jean as well.  Through her perception, Margureite sees Jean not as a noble knight, but rather as a cold hearted and deeply insecure man-child that seems more worried about his reputation and legacy than her mental and physical well being.  And when witness her meeting with Jacques played out a second time he's shown as a predatory monster that refused to accept no from her.  Unfortunately for her, the period she lives in does not afford her rape accusations any favors whatsoever.  When Jacques confesses to a priest about his wrongdoing, he asks for forgiveness for...adultery.  The priest then dryly informs him that "rape is not a crime against a woman.  It's a property manner."  Wow. 

As the film crescendos to the climatic duel between Jacques and Jean it becomes fascinating in how Scott and company have managed to make this one of the most unusually baggage riddled fight sequences in recent memory.  Once audience members process all three perspectives given, it becomes clear that (a) this is not a clear, black and white battle between good and evil and (b) Jean is not really worthy of our rooting interest as a pure hearted hero because of the type of man that he's been revealed to be.  Jacques is, yes, totally evil.  That much is made apparent.  But Jean doesn't seem to partake in the legal duel out of a drive to honor his wife that was horribly raped, but rather to promote himself and his worthiness as a combatant.  In most respects, it's about vanity and ego for him.  The only reason we want to see him defeat Jacques is so that the real victim in all of this (his wife) is spared a horrible death.  In the end, this is a fight between two deeply selfish and tunnel visioned men, with one of them utterly convinced of his innocence despite his clear-cut crimes against a woman and the other fully believing he's a hero when he's just a narcissist that's driven by his own petty pursuits. 

I was really invested in all of the minute details of the film re-creating many key moments that built up to this duel from the POV of the trio.  Like, for instance, a first meeting between Marguerite and Jacques, which features a customary kiss between the pair.  Through his take, it was a moment of heated passion that should be acted upon, but via her standpoint it was fleeting and innocent.  And then from Jean's outlook it's all pretty harmless...because that's just how men and women greet in formal settings.  What it all boils down to in terms of timely commentary is how these men in positions of relative power (actually, make that all men of the period) had every legal leg up on women.  Marguerite, despite her hellish ordeal, is mostly spat on for her rape claims and will likely have her name tarnished no matter what the outcome.  If Jean wins the duel, he'll be the one propped up as a gallant savoir.  I think this is what makes THE LAST DUEL unlike just about any other period epic of recent memory (or any on Scott's resume): It's not about gallantry and heroism in the traditional sense, but instead is about breaking down those conventions and showing the inherent uglier side of male dominant societies of centuries past in the Middle Ages and how some of that still unhealthily manifests itself in the present.  These knights in shining armor were anything but that.   

The performance ensemble here is most outstanding, even though I have to concede that there are many American and British actors here that are playing French people of the Middle Ages that should have been played by French actors...and perhaps not in English (then again, maybe it was a wise touch to not have Affleck, Driver, Damon, etc. attempt French accents here, which would have been severely distracting).  Driver is reliably commanding playing his creepily intimidating lout with delusions of persecution, and Affleck - with his bleached blond hair and eyebrows - is a nice performance foil to the brooding Driver, encapsulating his count's lecherous douchebag-ery with a condescending flair of perpetual arrogance.   Damon arguably has the trickiest acting arc of the three male leads here in having to give us two radically different takes of the same character, with one showing Jean as a fairly idealized and sympathetic protagonist and the other evoking him as a whiny lout.  Then there's the film's real coup de grace performance and Oscar worthy turn by Jodie Comer, who gives THE LAST DUEL its true sympathetic focal point playing a woman hopelessly trapped in her times with very few outlets of support for her.  She plays Marguerite with such authentic conviction and bravery, not to mention that she's stuck between a physical war between two men that are more fighting for themselves than they are for her.   

Oh, let's not forget that the wily old veteran in the 83-year-old Scott is incapable of making a truly bad looking film, and THE LAST DUEL shows just how commanding he is in helming these types of historical dramas.  THE LAST DUEL is a darker and grungier epic than Scott is usually accustomed to, but he makes the blood soaked battlefields and dim and dreary castle settings feel oppressively gorgeous at times.  That, and what a bold and unusual creative pairing between him and Affleck and Damon, and THE LAST DUEL marks the Oscar winning writers first screenplay collaboration since - holy! - GOOD WILL HUNTING way, way back in 1995.  Combining their astutely character/dialogue focused, well researched, and sensitive writing alongside Scott's robust visual eye for scale and production design as a director makes THE LAST DUEL have a different kind of genre grandeur and intrigue that's wholly unique.  If you're looking for an old fashioned tale of chivalry, then you're looking in the wrong direction.  The last duel in THE LAST DUEL almost isn't as significant as the tale that segues into it, which has much to say about ravenous unchecked misogyny both then and now. 

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