Official Selection and Special Presentation of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival
THE LAST DUEL– 3 STARS
LESSON #1: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU MAKE AN ENEMY— The Last Duel, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from Eric Jager’s 2004 bestseller, delves into the true story of the last trial by combat sanctioned by the French government in the late 14th century. Culminating in 1386, Jacques le Gris, squire to Count Pierre d’Alençon, was accused by the knight Jean de Carrouges of raping his wife Marguerite. Centuries before declarative forensics and gender equality, this adultery was viewed as an affront of property crime against Carrouges and his livelihood, not his wife. Let that provocative view right there frame the dark and unrefined era of history being channeled and uncoiled by this arduous film.
Played respectively by the very clearly non-French Matt Damon and Adam Driver attempting zero accents, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris were once devoted friends as loyal soldiers-of-fortune for their Normandy homeland and the young King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). Together they survived failed campaigns and plenty of violent scrapes with death on the muddy and snowy battlefields of waged wars. During peacetime, the widowed and heirless Carrouges would remarry and struggle to maintain his father’s estate and his apprentice captaincy while the literate le Gris was recruited by the sexual snake oil of regional lord Count Pierre (a hedonistic Ben Affleck, who feels like he’s arrived from a different movie), to be his tax-collecting muscle and partner in carnal crime. In the middle betrothed to Carrouges and lusted by le Gris was Marguerite (Jodie Comer, recently of Free Guy).
Written by Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me? screenwriter Nicole Holofcener and Good Will Hunting Oscar winners Damon and Affleck, The Last Duel unfurls this saga in three named sections defined as “The Truth According To…” each of our triple leads. With different lengths, angles, and implications, the two men’s chapters are first and detail the rise and fall of their camaraderie and rivalry through jealousy and chivalric position. Much like the times, honor was sought at whatever face-saving cost was necessary against even the smallest spite and rebuke. Dial it up to rape and we get the titular ultimate showdown that will “render him dead at the appointed time.”
LESSON #2: WHO DECIDES THE TRUTH?— In essence, one man is accusing the other of a heinous crime which the other denies as a false charge against him, his position, and his public character. The truth must be decided between one man’s word and another. Once again in capturing the ugliness of the era, it is the worshipped Almighty who decides through favor in battle. At this time in France, the two would ceremoniously fight to the death to prove who God found to be truthful. The belief is that God’s will would protect the honest man and strike down the dishonest one. While imperfect and incomplete hundreds of years later, we have done and can do better than that when it comes to decisions and rulings.
Ridley Scott, surrounding himself with many of his trusted artistic collaborators, is no stranger to the clanging and banging brutality of armored combat. Veteran stunt coordinator Rob Inch devised several thrilling sequences, including the ferocious grand finale, within the stunning period locations and towering sets crafted by three-time Oscar-nominated production designer Arthur Max. Along the way, stellar cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures every flake of snow and spray of blood that textures the physical and symbolic grime of this sordid affair. Shrewdly, the score of Harry Gregson-Williams chooses its places to punch up the melodic fury or remain silent while the drama sears on its own without accompaniment.
The simmering silence is where much of The Last Duel dwells and for purposeful reasons. And what of the story of Marguerite, the true victim of this vile transgression? The knight-building and hero worship occurring before is clearly a false front to her damning chapter that closes the film, repaints virtues, and hammers every moral nail in the film’s keeps and castles.
Surrounded by multiple awards winners, Jodie Comer takes absolute ownership of this picture during the long-gestating denouement. Her character’s challenged resolve against the many judgmental men questioning her spousal devotion and even the state of her personal pleasure burns the adjacent A-listers to the ground. Furthermore, Marguerite’s shattered beauty shoulders tremendous risk to her own life during this maligned struggle. Don’t be surprised if Jodie Comer makes the Academy Award field under the Supporting Actress category and rightfully so.
It is also through her side of the story, clearly a huge product of Holofcener’s storytelling contributions, where the historical behaviors in The Last Duel accurately yet problematically fly against our still-evolving modern attitudes. While Scott’s film may follow the charted multiple perspectives of Jager’s well-researched novel, folding its painful and triggering trauma three times makes for an exorbitant and unsettling movie experience.
LESSON #3: CUT STRAIGHT TO THE TRUTH— We have reached a point in the social and cultural zeitgeist of #MeToo and #IBelieveThem where there can be no more beating around the bush of shrugging misdirection within sexual assault narratives. When full stories delay like this, even if it’s attempting to balance patience of seeking innocence over guilt amid accusations or setting up a revelatory rug-pull who’s really right as this movie does, belaboring the truth ends up devaluing it all too often.
Piling on with old history like this, delaying a woman’s unfairly hushed truth borders on egregious selectivity. The Last Duel subjects its truest core to last place as an exhausting retread in a movie surpassing two-and-a-half hours. Better weaving of this blackened tapestry could have been achieved to amplify and champion what is too often ignored elsewhere. If Marguerite’s side matters and strikes its bold chords, give the movie to Jodie Comer. Make her weaponless battle of one truth and two lies the real focus. Dangle the guessing games about the violent, sword-wielding men into a constricting orbit around her essential veracity and give the woman her proper platform.