Ridley Scott Returns With a Historical Epic Made for Our Moment
DIRECTOR: RIDLEY SCOTT/2021
I’ve never seen a movie that made me want to live in the Middle Ages. The Last Duel has not changed that fact.
From the unflattering haircuts to the constant presence of miscellaneous chickens, no film, no matter how romantic, has ever made me romanticize the era. We’ve still got problems in the 21st century, but at least one practice we’ve eliminated entirely—save some Renaissance Fairs—is jousting to the death, a custom as brutal and silly as could be. When you’re also dealing with the Black Death, invading armies, feudal hierarchies, suffocating taxes, and unqualified politicians claiming divine right, I’m not sure why you’d add jousting to your list of stressors. Then again, should we talk about all the less-optional stressors women had to deal with on top of everything men did?
The last of these brutal, silly duels officially recognized in France is where we begin our story, as well as where we end it. The Last Duel follows the friendship, the falling out, and the final battle between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, continuing his campaign to win the title of Most American Frenchman) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). After a decade-plus of disputes over land, titles, and reputation, the finishing blow comes when Jean’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses Jacques of raping her. Jean challenges Jacques to a duel in the presence of King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), even though middle manager Count Pierre (Ben Affleck) has declared his friend Le Gris innocent. Because it’s a murky situation, French law states whomever survives the duel is the one telling the truth.
Duel tells its story in three parts: the first from the perspective of Jean, the second from Jacques, and the third from Marguerite. This structure is the film’s greatest strength, not just because it reinvents how to tell a historical action epic, but because we hear stories like this every day. In our moment when truth can feel difficult to know, the same tale from three voices feels like the barrage of information we must sift through in the news, on social media, and from our friends. Though Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite are each privy to certain moments and facts the others are not, some scenes are repeated in each telling, and no two moments are the same. Dialogue and temperaments change, as well as the explanations we are given for someone’s behavior. At first appearance, all three of our main characters seem to be respectable, God-fearing people, so whom do we believe when their versions of events can’t coexist?
More than demonstrating this cultural conflict, Duel is about the internal stories we tell ourselves and what we do when those narratives are challenged. Jean sees himself as a chivalrous knight, and Jacques believes he’s the hero in a romantic novel, but their characters are best revealed when put to the test. When Marguerite finally speaks, she fills in gaps they both left in her portrait, as well as their self-portraits. When we are on trial, we tell the the jury the most flattering version of events, and not always to deceive. We believe in the case we’re making, and we don’t just give ourselves the benefit of the doubt—we give ourselves credit for things we’ve never done. If confronted with contradictions, we become petty, retreating into our vanity. (In that sense, this isn’t the first time Matt Damon has played this part.)
This plot structure also keeps the story grounded in its characters instead its hot-button subject matter. Comer, Damon, and Driver know how to bring every interpretation of Marguerite, Jean, and Jacques to life in each interpretation of the truth, allowing your opinions of them to flip on a dime while keeping their performances authentic. Duel neither tries too hard to feel relevant to modern audiences nor indulges in historical detail, which I’m thankful for if for no other reason that there are only so many Adam Drivers in the world who can make their hair work in any era. (Case in point: From the 1360s to the 1380s, Jean’s chop is best described as “1980s trucker mullet,” while Pierre keeps bringing his barber a picture of the werewolf lewk in the “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” music video.)
That’s also a testament to Ridley Scott’s direction. Duel feels like a cousin to Gladiator, both in its believable depiction of history and in its action. His latest fills of its runtime with more talking than his 2000 Best Picture winner, but the drama is gripping start-to-finish even if that runtime feels 10 minutes too long. If there’s any deterrent for audiences, it’s the violence. The wartime flashbacks and the titular joust are bloody and brutal, though it won’t be a surprise for Gladiator fans. The bigger challenge is the sex scenes, none of which are sexy. Not-really-a-spoiler alert: There is a rape in this film, and while it is handled carefully, it is just as painful to sit through as you imagine (and frankly, as it should be). (Mild spoiler alert!) Of the consensual sex scenes, every one of them reinforces how little power women held in this society. While all scenes with Marguerite show little or no nudity, there are others featuring actresses literally credited as “Woman at Orgy.” Do these scenes develop our main characters and the story arc? Yes. Were these scenes as gratuitous as they could have been? No. In this film’s context of unreliable narrators, it’s also possible these moments don’t represent reality, but in the moment they feel like cliché male fantasies that ogle vulnerable women. Like I said, none of the sex scenes in this movie are sexy. (End spoiler alert.)
It’s difficult to discuss The Last Duel any further without getting into serious spoiler territory, and since it’s the rare film that doesn’t make its conclusion obvious, I won’t kill the tension that builds in the third act for you. (I’d also recommend not reading about the real events until after seeing the film since it’s more or less accurate to what we know happened in the 1300s.) It’s also a movie I’ve continued to think about in the days since, about how we lie to ourselves and others, what we sacrifice for justice, how we use women and vulnerable people as means to our own ends, and how versatile an actor Driver is. I may never want to live in the world of the Middle Ages, but I am glad to live in a world where a major studio, some of the greatest movie stars, and a top-tier director want to make a movie as rich and complex and thorny as this one.