Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Last Duel, takes the Rashomon approach in telling its story. It is a movie that revolves around one event but from three different perspectives. The event at hand is the rape of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) at the hands of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a friend of Marguerite’s husband, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who challenges Jacques to a duel once he finds out what has happened. The story is told from three perspectives; Jean’s, Jacques’, and finally Marguerite’s, with each story getting its own chapter titled, “The Truth According to…” and then the respective characters’ names.
Each chapter tells a different version of the story. In Jean’s version, Jean has a constant chip on his shoulder despite being a top-tier knight for his country. He always goes to war and gives blood, sweat, and tears, yet never gets what he believes he has earned. He’s always playing second-fiddle to his friend Jacques, who seems to be a favorite of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). When Marguerite informs him that she has been raped by Jacques, Jean immediately takes action and challenges Jacques to a duel to honor his wife and get vengeance for what has happened to her.
Chapter two looks at the perspective of Jacques. We see his rise over Jean to become Pierre d’Alençon’s right-hand man. He fancies himself quite the ladies’ man and one day, at a large event, thinks that Marguerite flirting with him and thinks they have a connection. He sees Jean as weak and someone who has earned everything that has come to him. The rape he is accused of is shown as more of a playful moment between Jacques and Marguerite, which is how Jacques sees the situation. Jacques doesn’t see it as anything more than him sleeping with a woman he had a connection with, but he accepts Jean’s challenge to a duel anyway.
The third chapter, Marguerite’s chapter, is where the film elevates itself to something truly great. The title card “The Truth According to Marguerite” pops up on the screen, much as it did with Jean’s chapter and Jacques’s chapter. However, when the title card fades, the words “The Truth” stay on screen for just a few seconds longer, emphasizing that Marguerite’s truth is the truth about the events that happened. Her truth reveals who she really is and who Jean and Jacques really are. We see Marguerite as a strong woman trying to live in a male world and how moments that Jean might have seen himself as a hero or Jacques saw himself being charming actually came off completely different. We see the brutality of the rape and the events that follow, which include Jean’s ill-advised duel challenge and the threat that if Jean didn’t win the duel, Marguerite would be burned alive for false accusation, a threat Jean completely ignored and still went on with the duel for his own pride in beating his friend who has seemingly beat him in everything in their lives.
In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa said that his goal of the film was to use the different perspectives as an exploration of alternate realities rather than an exercise in truth. There was no definitive answer as to which event was correct or who was telling the truth. But in The Last Duel, there is an answer to what really happened and the answer is Marguerite’s. The Last Duel isn’t a tricky thriller that wants you to decide which truth you believe, but rather a movie that looks at a strong-willed woman living in a male-dominated world and having to live with the consequences of their actions, even though she is the one who is threatened and the one that knows the truth about what happened. Jean sees himself as a victim who has never gotten what he deserved. But through Marguerite’s eyes, he’s a whiny coward who constantly complains about his misfortunes. Jacques sees himself as a suave, charming, honorable knight who women can’t get enough of. But in the eyes of Marguerite, he’s a predator. The Last Duel looks at the male ego and its problematic nature. The most alarming aspect is that this movie takes place in the 1300s, yet the themes and story are all too relevant to today and the #MeToo movement.
This is the best-looking movie Scott has made since 2010’s Robin Hood. The costumes and sets are gorgeous and the cinematography is stunning. The action sequences are bloody, brutal, and masterfully made, highlighted by the final duel, which is an exhilarating and beautifully shot sequence that will take your breath away. The performances are uniformly great, with Affleck giving a delightfully hammy performance as Pierre d’Alençon and Comer, who is great in the first two chapters, but completely dominates the third chapter in a deeply emotional and powerful performance of strength.
The Last Duel is a thrilling and gripping period piece led by Scott’s technical mastery, an interesting story structure, and a top-notch ensemble.