The Last Duel
Sir Ridders cast aspersions on those who shunned his not-quite most recent movie, on the basis that “The millennian do not ever want to be taught anything unless you are told it on the cell phone”. Perhaps he should be more concerned at the mature adults who didn’t show up – surely the actual market for this – the ones hoping for a modicum of stimulation beyond unnuanced regurgitation of the prevailing political currency. Hoisted atop his ivory tower, Ridders may think a medieval #MeToo is pure dynamite, but very few outside the Twittersphere inhale such rarefied fumes, certainly not out of choice. The consequence is that The Last Duel is bluntly didactic, and so entirely fails to justify the typically gargantuan bloat with which Scott invests his telling. Another movie, another bout of toxic maledom.
Sir Ridders is, of course, no stranger to spoon-feeding subtext in his dotage. The ambivalent suggestion of Rick Deckard being a replicant becomes, under Ridley revisionism, an unassailable fact. Ever wondered about Alien’s exotic space jockey? Now you’ll wish you’d never asked. The Last Duel is for anyone who thought Rashomon would have been much improved by a key participant’s objective gaze. But more than that, given its subject matter, about the only way the movie could possibly have justified its structural tack – and clearly, there was absolutely no chance it was going that route, given the entire reason for its existence – was if rape victim Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) had been lying, or the possibility that she was left open.
Scott hasn’t historically been one for the progressive text, however much he may cite Thelma & Louise or – gawd ‘elp us – G.I. Jane in support of his corner. It wasn’t so long ago that he dazzled us with the harsh desert glare of the so-white-it’s-blinding Exodus: Of Gods and Kings; he emerged entirely unrepentant. He has, however, been a fervent and influential essayist in support of the transhumanist cause, the machine more human than the human (from Roy Batty to David), so it should be entirely unsurprising that someone disembowelling the Alien franchise of all mystery (I say that having enjoyed the prequels more than most) should eventually climb aboard the woke train with such rudimentarily “laudable” material.
Matt and Ben penned the screenplay with Nicole Holofcener (the pair would never had flown as penmen without a female participant to add legitimacy, and in their self-serving, virtue signalling way, they knew that). Their source material is The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. Well, as true anything purporting to have taken place in 1368 can be, I guess.
Their bright idea was to replay the story from three subjective perspectives: Chapter One – the truth according to Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon); Chapter Two – the truth according to Jacque Le Gris (Adam Driver); and Chapter Three – the truth according to The Lady Marguerite. We prelude on a duel limbering up between Jean and Jacques, before flashing back to the reason for their disagreement. Jacques, having already infuriated his old soldiering cohort Jean by taking land that was due him as a dowry and receiving his hereditary captaincy, stands accused of raping his wife Marguerite. Jean, knowing that Jacques’ debauched buddy Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck) will dismiss the charges, has appealed to King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) for a duel to the death.
Matt and Ben’s (and Nicole’s) choice can only really work if it’s honest to its conceit. What they have done is invoke the structure of a much-imitated classic while offering none of its layering and pause for thought. The Last Duel was lost long before Ridders dissolved Chapter Three’s title to leave “the truth” as the final words on screen. There’s no woodcutter here to shed “objective” truth on the story (and even the woodcutter cannot be regarded as entirely objective; nevertheless, the crux of his account’s relative fidelity is based on his lack of investment in the main event, something starkly absent here).
Objective truth is, and has to be, the woman’s account, rendering the choice of different perspectives largely pointless. As in, the flattering retelling from others’ points of view yields a few swaps of dialogue and heroic/noble intention/loyalty, and a few gasps at what passes for acceptable behaviour by medieval standards (at least, Jacques, being incorrigibly toxic, doesn’t seem to believe it was rape: “Of course, she made a customary protest, but she is a lady. It was not against her will”. And if he doesn’t seem to believe it, there is absolutely zero doubt that, from our point of view, his own “sympathetic” telling is rape). That’s about as opaque as the picture gets, though.
The Last Duel is determinedly unsubtle: “The common mind has no capacity for this sort of nuance” says Pierre of the “not rape rape” incident, to use Whoopie speak, but it could equally be applied to Sir Ridders’ delusion as to the richness of his subject matter. Consequently, out goes any chance of its two-and-a-half hours seeming other than an endurance test. Why does Scott even employ a damn editor? His only pictures of late approaching a “slender” two hours are the Alien prequels, and we have to go all the way back to his duelling debut for one that has a legitimate sense of restraint (there’s Legend too, of course but not in director’s cut form). If you were all set on seeing a medieval Matt with a mullet mashing Adam in the face with a mace, you’ll have a very long wait. Although, the mullet bit, we admittedly get straight into with maximum haste.
Matt and Ben (and Nicole’s) writing isn’t merely rudimentary when it comes to plotting. They tend to favour unprettified modern colloquialisms (“I am broke. I need money” announces Jean; “This is what I do” of his soldiering). And when there’s something “to learn”, as Ridders would have it, it usually comes across as unvarnished exposition. “Formally, this is not about her. Rape is a crime against a woman. It is a property crime against her male guardian” Želiko Ivanek’s Le Coq advises Jacques, telling him something he already knows; it’s a crucial point of law in understanding this world, despite the mix and match of attitudes modern and medieval, but it could surely have been presented less like a “lesson”.
That’s true all over, though. The desire to present medieval mores and yet simultaneously observe contemporary attitudes to morality and language should really have been translated through the lens of the director rather than the dumbing down of the telling. If not for Ridders’ “the truth”, I’d have credited the final account as perhaps the most self-promoting of the lot. It’s riddled with too-good-to-be-true nuggets of bestest-evah Marguerite, so much better in every way than those dreadful menfolk (you know, the ones who see women as no more than baby-making property); had this been anyone but blunt-force Scott, I’d have assumed it was supposed to be every bit as debatable.
We see Marguerite educating her husband (“You see – how a smile and a kind word go much further than a harsh one, even if you don’t mean it”). And Ridley takes utmost care to display Jean in the basest manner, cutting from Matty rescuing his mare from a wild stallion to his shagging wifey; I don’t believe I’ve witnessed such a dazzling visual metaphor since Munich. There are also numerous allusions to his being a less than diligent lover, along with his repudiation of her for not being up to the childbearing task (“I did not have this problem with my first wife”). And when Jean learns of the deed, he takes it very personally (“Can this man do nothing but evil to me?”)
Obviously then, we need it reinforced that Marguerite has scant need of such a useless man. Which is why, when he’s off fighting, she tells one of her dutiful farmhands to let the mare run free. You see? She knows how to treat the servants and the animals! And she receives peasants eager to pay their dues (Matt “never came to collect it”). You see? She’s amazing with the serfs and they beg her to take their taxes! And when the ploughing is not going well, she instructs the horses to be used for the task. You see? She’s amazing at farming! Marguerite’s just all-round fantastic! Indeed, lest you doubted “…it actually is a very feminist movie. We immediately engaged some #MeToo groups and Geena Davis’s group to advise us, to listen to us“. Thank heaven for Geena.
Notably too, when it comes to the means by which they intend to call out Jacques for his deed, Jean announces “We have a plan” to his circle, instead of the “I have a plan” of his version. Which further makes one wonder about Marguerite’s “truth”. Because, in a true account, could you really see this man sharing credit for “his” smarts with his wife?
This part of the plot is one of the more pertinent allusions to modernity, creating gossip that cannot be ignored more than seven hundred years before Twitter. But there’s little else in the very dry telling that reflects such possibility. Maybe a fourth chapter, “The truth according to Nicole de Buchard” (Harriet Walter) in which we learn why the mother-in-law, who really rather loathed her daughter, chose that day to go into town with all the servants, such that, only hours later, Jacques and his squire rocked up to pay Marguerite call. Suspicious, ne c’est pas?
The performances? Well, Matt and Ben – especially Matt – have zero plausibility as period types. Driver boasts the kind of idiosyncratic features that could prop up almost any era (and at this rate, will have done), but Damon always looks decidedly preppy, when he isn’t playing a bumblefuck. The mullet is ridiculous, and since Matt can’t grow facial hair – so he says – so is the glued-on chin beard. Perhaps the idea was to concentrate on the hair rather than him. Ben gave us one of his best turns – as a ham actor – in Shakespeare in Love, but this blonde-rinsed dissolute reveals the occasional caustic line yet nothing truly to relish (he was originally pencilled in for Jacques, but Deep Water got in the way).
Comer is fine, and there’s little more that can be said. It isn’t a part that grants grandstanding, and because Ridley’s nuts-and-bolts in his approach, there isn’t an awful lot she can make of it. Ivanek’s good, and Lawther makes a silly, tittering king, preceding the fabled delusions to come.
However, if Ridley makes a tepid account of himself with the three at-odds narratives, the framing duel itself finds him on undeniable form. It’s visceral, gripping stuff, as good a piece of action as he has shot. The camera barrels after the knights as they charge each other. Lances crunch and splinter. Flesh is impaled by all manner of implements. A lad is killed. Jean is kicked by a horse. Another falls on Jacques. Swords snap off. Basically, Ridley pulls out all the stops. It’s ghastly and grisly and compelling. And yet, it isn’t treated with any real insight or empathy, because men are toxic and have such ultraviolence coming.
The look of the picture… Dariusz Wolski’s medieval palate is typical drab, grim, cold and unforgiving, as if he prepped by watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But stripped, obviously, of any humorous impulse. Back when he made The Duellists, and two or three movies after that, Sir Ridders left room for mood and texture in his pictures. It lent them a sense of resonance and depth they may not have really possessed, if his subsequent output is any indication. Which is why The Last Duel is exactly the bare essentials it boasts, but essentials pumped with self-important wind, announcing its worth far beyond its actual content. Magnificent mullet, mind.