Catching Up on The Last Duel

Catching Up on The Last Duel
Reckoning with Ridley Scott's Medieval Me-Too Movie

Critical acclaim has never been much of a reason to get excited for a new Ridley Scott film but it’s hard not to respect that instead of making another nostalgia-soaked trip back through childhood years that every other director seems to be, he decided to make this brutal and serious medieval me-too movie; pushing how charged the material of a 100 million dollar can be as far as it will go.

Scott is ultimately a journeyman and the film lacks a certain sharpness of perspective: it’s brutal, but not that brutal; the men are debauched, but not that debauched. There’s a lot of dry expositional scenes with unengaging—if perfectly professional and highly competent—filmmaking, but cool professionalism can leave some interesting gaps. A cut from Jean de Carrouges’ (Matt Damon) wedding to Marguerite (Jodie Comer) to Jean arguing the details of his dowry would feel awfully on the nose in the hands of any director too interested in emphasis. Although he dabbles in it a little with Ben Affleck’s bawdy and crude Count, Scott never falls into that fashionably quirky absurdism of other recent historical films (amongst others, The Favourite (2018), a film that thinks it’s acceptable and funny to point out that in the past, men used to wear make-up).

The Last Duel is split into three parts, three perspectives on the story of Marguerite’s rape by Jacques de Gris (Adam Driver) and her husband’s previous petty rivalry with him, which eventually leads to a judicial duel, allegedly to prove whether or not Marguerite was telling the truth (if she’s proven a liar, she’ll be burnt at the stake). Each chapter is titled “the truth according to…” which has drawn much comparison to Rashomon, but Kurosawa’s film is questioning our ability to interpret reality all together, asking if there is any objectivity even to grasp to, when Scott eventually gets to Marguerite’s chapter, he has part of the title fade away first, leaving only “the truth”.

Jean’s mother (Harriet Walter) tells Marguerite “there is no right, only the power of man”, the film powerfully disagrees, it is in equal parts materialist and moralistic. The difference between the three tellings are minor, usually a slight reframing of the same conversations; the biggest changes are ones of omission. There isn’t multiple perspectives, there is only truth and lies. The film might have been more radical if the changes were bigger and suggested that these men weren’t just lying, but living materially false lives, but Scott doesn’t do more than allow a little space for that interpretation.

The film is as sharp as it can be when characters are causally talking, accidentally revealing just how endemic and cruel this society’s view of rape are. After being sued by Jean, Jacques goes to the Count for advice and when pushed to confess, to his most scoundrelous friend, in private, he says “of course she made the customary protest, but she is a lady; it was not against her will.” A priest later reminds Jacques that “this temptress leads you astray”.

Then there is Jean’s mother, who is consistently the cruelest and coldest to Marguerite for not filling her role as woman, as wife. The mother / wife as symbolic of societal order is a slightly uncomfortable archetype, but the film makes some attempt to deepen it; she reveals to Marguerite that she too was raped, but chose to carry the weight herself and keep on living. That is the way of the world and nothing is to be gained by flailing against it except more absurd suffering and even death, as proved by the men fighting in this duel which is supposed to, by God, reveal some kind of truth.

In the first two chapters Marguerite seems to be played purely symbolically, on the periphery of these men’s childish, high stakes antagonism. This would seem to be a product, both of omission—they aren’t paying much attention to her—and also of perspective, although the film doesn’t buy too much into that. But in her own chapter, when she’s given more space to show herself, in part due to Comer’s tendency towards shallow doe-eyes, there still doesn’t seem to be much there; she gains a fieriness and a ferocity as she pushes Jean to fight for her, to prove her right, but it’s not made clear how this relates to her in earlier scenes (of her own telling) when amongst her gossiping friends fawning over Jacques, says with a projected maturity and lack of irony “he is handsome, but my husband doesn’t trust him”.

To Scott, rape is so awful an act that it cuts through anything else, when it happens a woman must reckon with it with cleared eyes and she must chose whether to go down the path of Marguerite and fight against it, or down the path of Jean’s mother and live with it. He doesn’t take his own portrayal of the oppressiveness, or maybe more-so, the casual certainty, the materialist morality of this society, whilst even Marguerite’s close friends turn on her—pointing out that she did find Jacques handsome—she stands above them, as if purified by this atrocity.

With such a thorny and charged story, there is an understandable impulse to simplify, to make a solid and material stand—the righteous and the evil—but as Richard Brody powerfully suggested, the film would be better served in doing this if it believed Marguerite enough not to show the rape once, none the less twice.

The duel itself delivers on the promise of dirty brutality as Jean stabs Jacques through the mouth, maybe its symbol change is what lets it go so far. This ending, where Jean wins and Marguerite is proved right, is an effective and bold one; in the short epilogue we see her face crowded with the joy of raising a child, of still being alive, and the immense weight of what she still has to carry for the rest of her life, in the end she’s in no better a place as Jean’s mother. It hints at a film that truly took its own implications seriously, was truly complex, not scared by its own weight; maybe one directed by more capable hands.

Originally posted on Substack on January 20th 2022