The Last Duel made me smile from the outset because the opening was so very Ridley Scott. Grim. Dour. The texture and the light palette makes you almost breathe in the soot and the filth of 1386 Paris. We begin where the film ends, at the eponymous duel itself.
On one side: Sir Jean de Carrouges. A knight in the service of King Charles VI, played by Matt Damon.
Damon quipped in an interview that Ridley Scott decided on his look and Damon was like “okay!” But a word about this look: it’s amazing. It’s like painting the outside of a character to embody his innermost traits.
Carrouges is a fierce fighter and an overly proud ogre of a man. The poorly stitched scar on his right cheek is something I want on every MMO character I create from now until the end of time. It’s so deep and puckered. I’ll bet you could get a dime to stand up in that trench if he was laying down. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off of it long enough to adore the weighty majesty of the most defiant mullet in film history.
It’s not the poofy mullet of a dancer. It’s not the ironic mullet of a fashionista. It’s the workmanlike mullet of a soldier who was trying to get his damn helmet on and took a steak knife to the hair that got in the way of his ability to see and to kill. That’s it. There’s no “business up front party out back” because there’s no party anywhere with Jean de Carrouges. If this was Tolkien, he’d be a grumbling dwarf. If this was now, he’d be the auto mechanic dollying out from under a vehicle to ask a new customer “what?” The long hair in back is not an homage to the locks of Sampson or Mark Antony. Carrouges is illiterate, and has no use for book learnin’. The hair in the back escapes his knife only because he can’t see it. The mullet, as the centerpiece of Carrouges’s look, is glorious. Everything about Carrouges’s appearance in this film, in fact, from his stiff joints and wide back to his porcine disposition are used sublimely to contrast him with his opponent.
The learnéd and ascendant squire, Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. God I love that name. Feels like a pirate’s name to me. Say it out loud and you’ll be saying it all day, especially if you can do it with a French uvular trill. Le Gris.
Le Gris is an old friend of Carrouges, once the godfather to his child before the youngster was lost to a plague. Le Gris is handsome and bright, a wizard with numbers, languages, and ladies. He is charming and quick-witted and slow to anger. He is very much everything Carrouges is not.
But we don’t know this when we meet them, at the duel as they present themselves in front of the young king and he bids them begin. Best friends, once upon a time, having saved the life of the other in battle, depending on whose story you believe. And there’s the rub: we arrive at this duel because Le Gris is accused of raping Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, who is the wife of Jean de Carrouges.
She says he did it. He says he didn’t. And thus a duel is called for — the final duel ever fought in France — to let a higher power decide who is telling the truth.
And this is how the tale is told. Chapter one, written by Damon and Ben Affleck, is the story according to Jean de Carrouges. Chapter two, also penned by them, is the version put forth by Jacques Le Gris. The final act is written by Nicole Holofcener and is the true version, as put forth by the Lady Marguerite.
Anyone attending The Last Duel to see sprawling battles in the vein of Braveheart or HBO’s Rome will come away sorely disappointed. Most of the film is a plodding, slow-paced version of the events that led to the rape. There’s a lot of exposition and scenes you see three times, albeit from different points of view. I watched it with my wife and she almost audibly sighed when Le Gris’s version began because she just didn’t want to see the rape again.
The rape scene, itself, was handled with care by Ridley Scott. As you can imagine, because it’s such a key moment of the story, it had to be covered. But it’s not done so in the way we’ve seen in other shows and films, where you get the sense that the director is actually trying to titillate the audience or shoot it gratuitously. Every frame of it is handled with care. There’s no nudity. That said, the subject matter is horrific and I could see how it might be too much for some viewers. By the third time, I was wincing.
In the end, the two men face off and we see whether or not justice will be done. For Le Gris, who did rape Marguerite, he knows in his heart that it wasn’t a rape. There wasn’t a woman in France who wouldn’t share his bed. That’s the level of Lothario he was. Le Gris builds up a fantasy in his mind that Marguerite is in love with him and her protests are merely her “playing the part” of a righteous woman, and doing what’s socially acceptable. But of course she was in love with him. Of course she wanted it to happen. The audience sees the scene very clearly and there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that Le Gris is in the wrong, but Le Gris is a man with powerful allies and he’s a gifted soldier. Throughout the film we see how his intelligence and ability and work ethic have allowed him a triumphant rise in class and social standing, while the laconic, uneducated Carrouges surfs from debt to debt with nothing but his anger to keep him company. The big question isn’t whether Le Gris did it. He did. The question is whether or not he’ll win the duel and be exonerated in the eyes of his King, his Count, and the people of France, and in doing so, kill Carrouges and send Marguerite to be shackled, whipped, and burned at the stake.
There’s some pretty hard-core violence in this film, and so I’d suggest preparing yourself for that as you begin it. I won’t say which way the winds blow, but if you’re unprepared for the worst, the film might give you pause.
The acting in The Last Duel was uniformly outstanding. There wasn’t a single poor performance, from the sidekicks to the courtiers to the various attendants. Everyone was spot on, which is when you know you’re in the hands of a master director. For the most part, this felt like Damon’s movie and he had the most to work with, character-wise. I found his performance riveting. Long cast in parts for beautiful men, I adored the banged-up meatstick version of Damon. The different versions of the story only served to put Damon’s acting chops on full display. He embodied one of the most dislikeable avatars of toxic masculinity: the egomaniacal meathead, bound up in what the world owes him and prone to insta-rage. You will most certainly recognize Sir Jean de Carrouges in people you know.
Though they’re each given their own chapter, you might leave feeling that Jodie Comer and Adam Driver were excellent, but underutilized. Like there was more meat on the bone for each of them and we didn’t have time to see it. Driver is his usual, flawless self. He’s just straight-up, stone cold money. Goddamn, it’s so easy to love Adam Driver. I don’t know if there’s an easier thing to do in Hollywood than love Adam Driver. Driver has that everyman quality that Bruce Willis used to have, except that you also imagine that behind the scenes he’s not a prick. He was note perfect as the squire Le Gris, and produced a competing archetype from the seemingly endless vault of horrible man avatars. His was the Casanova. Universally loved and admired, respected, and yearned for. So lost in their own narcissism that they can’t imagine that someone might not share their elevated appraisal of themselves.
Comer, likewise, is rock-solid. Her version of events was clear-eyed and intelligent, and it’s obvious that Marguerite sees things as they really are, unlike the men, who are engulfed in various male delusions of their own making: delusions, it must be said, that are universal, and always seek to keep women down. I was thrilled when I heard that Holofcener had been hired to write for Marguerite, and pleased that Damon and Affleck, while sometimes late to the party, weren’t going to hide behind mistakes others had made about not inviting women to the writers’ room. Comer was excellent, and made Holofcener’s writing sparkle.
I’ve always been a bigger Matt Damon fan than Ben Affleck fan, but you can’t ignore how much Affleck steals the show as Count Pierre d’Alençon, the libertine lord whom both young squires report to, but who takes a very clear shine to Le Gris.
Again, it’s amazing how — when you get to write your own character — he ends up with all the best lines! But Affleck was undeniable. When he was on screen, the story lit up. For every grunt and frown from Damon’s Carrouges, Affleck countered with a laugh and a joke. It’s my favorite role of his in a long time. But also: he embodies yet another version of male toxicity – the wealthy adulterer who’s above the law – or, in this case, is the law. When men like Pierre are in charge, one wonders if there’s any true hope for progress. At least Carrouges has ambition and drive. At least Le Gris has education and ability. Pierre serves not only to remind us how debauched the nobility is, but how entrenched they are.
I should mention Željko Ivanek as the scheming holy man Le Coq. I don’t care where you cast him, what the story, the period, or the genre is: Željko Ivanek is always good. I can’t even find a picture of him in this film, that’s how little credit he ever gets, but he’s always, always good.
Lastly, if I was Alex Lawther, the 26-year-old actor who played Charles VI, I’d buy Ridley Scott a motorboat. Lawther low-key stole the show as the King of France, laughing at the most inappropriate times in the film. It was delightful, and a reminder that while you’re clipping coupons and trying to get your kids to school on time, people like Jeff Bezos are circling the stratosphere in a penis rocket and don’t care whether you live or die.
If my and my wife’s disparate reactions to the The Last Duel are any indication, it won’t end up being all things to all people. I found it captivating and compelling. She thought it was “cheesy” and wondered when Damon and Affleck are going to grow up and stop acting like little boys and playing dress up.
“That’s literally their job,” I said.
I thought the writing only felt bad to her because it was period, and you had some characters with French accents, while our ‘muricans only spoke in ‘murican. That part may bump for anyone, and took a little getting used to. But what’s the alternative? Have Damon and Affleck do terrible French accents and Driver and Comer do what I’m assuming would be flawless French accents?
“How about hiring French actors, then?” she asked. “They don’t have to be in it as well. They could just produce it.”
“Actors who can’t do accents? Hard pass. If this film had ended and then something came up on the screen saying ‘half of the proceeds of this film will be donated to victims of sexual abuse’ or something, then that would have been a statement.”
“You don’t think that would have made them look like they were overcompensating for something? Like they were guilty of something that we don’t know about?”
“They probably are. They knew Harvey Weinstein back in the day. They knew something was going on.”
“I feel like I’m getting painted into a mansplain corner here, but we don’t know that they knew anything.”
“I think they knew.”
“And you don’t think that creating a film that portrays the men as toxic barbarians–”
“That’s every film, pretty much, whether they mean it or not. If it’s an honest film.”
“–that portrays the men as toxic barbarians and the woman as the sole virtuous character isn’t making a statement? That they made this film to push this message isn’t a statement enough?”
“And got paid millions to do it? Nope. I don’t. Why would Adam Driver want this role? Ugh.”
There’s a really good chance that I just picked the wrong film at the wrong time to bring my wife to. Maybe when I said “you want to go the movies?” I should have added “you’ll get to see a woman raped three times!”
Pretty sure that was a tactical error on my part. She was not into it from the very beginning, while I was won over by Ridley Scott in the first few frames. I think that the film was very prescient about the reek of the patriarchy. I thought it clearly took a strong position, saying that the woman’s version was “The Truth.” I thought it unequivocally called out privilege and that they did the best they could with the material in this day and age. But then again, I’m a privileged white man, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Maybe what I think is a locomotive looks like a Thomas the Tank Engine to everyone else.
“You didn’t even like the duel at the end?” I asked her in the car on the way home, trying to find any common ground.
“Oh, no. The duel was amazing. It was a masterpiece. You like Ridley Scott more than I do, surprise surprise another white man you admire, but in that scene you knew you had a master at the helm. That was extraordinary.”
“You know I admire Nicole Holofcener too! She’s a white woman!”
She patted me on the arm, cocking her head. “Well then, you and Matt and Ben have done all you can, then, haven’t you?”
The Last Duel is in theaters now.