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No matter who wins ‘The Last Duel,’ we lose

Ridley Scott's medieval 'Rashomon' redux boasts an epic cast and a killer titular duel.

The following is an edited transcription of the video above, shortened for length and adjusted for clarity.

The Last Duel is the latest film from Ridley Scott, his first in several years since releasing All the Money in the World and Alien Covenant in 2017. He’s back this year with two films actually, as House of Gucci is set to release in the next month or so. But first we have The Last Duel, a film that is very different from many of his previous epics.

The marketing presents The Last Duel as a sweeping, epic story perhaps akin to Gladiator, easily for me Scott’s best film in the last 20 years. And elements of this movie certainly remind of how dedicated Scott is as a director when it comes to capturing periods of time in all their gritty details, even if they’re not technically historically accurate, his movies tend to capture a consistent spirit of the time period that makes films such as these engaging and authentic in their own way.

The Last Duel submits some especially challenging subject matter, as its title refers to a true story and is based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name, about the last legally sanctioned duel, or “trial by combat,” in France, which occurred in the late 14th century during the Bubonic Plague. It’s a time of desperation and hardship, but the movie mainly tracks an intimate rivalry between two men of different means.

One is a squire named Jean, played by Matt Damon, who is set to inherit a captaincy and eventually become a knight, as he sports a ridiculous haircut that honestly matches his oafish tendencies. He has an on-again, off-again friendship with another squire, the more dashing and suave Jacque, played by Adam Driver, who came from more humble origins but has nevertheless earned favor with the local nobility and is quickly climbing his way up the social hierarchy, much to Jean’s displeasure.

But at the true center of these bitter rivals is Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, a young and beautiful woman who is handed off to be married to Jean but is coveted by Jacque. The film plays out in a similar structure to Rashomon, albeit with just three perspectives and without a neutral party in the background. The movie starts with a Part One fixated around Jean’s side of the story, which spans about 16 years, tracking his friendship with Jacque, how matters deteriorate between them, and how he ultimately demands justice for his wife, who tells him Jacque has raped her.

This first part of the movie plays out in a very traditional fashion, something we’d probably expect to see from a Ridley Scott movie many years ago, maybe something like his version of Robin Hood from a decade ago, in fact. Where heroes are heroes and Matt Damon has to rise against all odds to protect the honor of his wife and his family’s name, you get it.

But there’s obviously much more to this story, and that probably has a lot to do with the screenplay being divided up between three writers, with Matt Damon reportedly covering the first part with his character and then Ben Affleck covering Part 2, which details Jacque’s perspective over this same period of time. Where Damon’s part of the story was about a valorous warrior constantly being victimized by plainly evil men who are merely jealous of his accomplishments, Adam Driver submits Jacque as a talented, roguish man who had to earn everything he’s gained, though mostly through a close friendship with the Count, played by Ben Affleck, who sees him as a far more fun and pleasant person to be around.

So you can see how these two men center themselves as the heroes of their own stories. Jacque ruthlessly rapes Marguerite, but he painfully tries to justify his sin through the loose morals and hopeless “love” of a man in a Greek tragedy, not someone truly interested in absolution and forgiveness. It’s not until the film spins into the third perspective, the Part 3 of the movie reportedly written by Nicole Holofcener, where we see how Marguerite views these series of events.

It’s at this point that The Last Duel finally feels like the real movie Scott wanted to make, though that’s not to say the first 2/3rds are without proper buildup to contextualize what’s so fascinating about Part 3. Once you see these men’s childish renditions of the story, it makes Jodie Comer’s performance all the more profound by comparison. When you see how Scott changes the framing of certain scenes to reveal what the text of the film goes out of its way to declare as “the truth” of what really happened, which is its biggest distinction from Rashomon, in which Kurosawa wanted the story to be vague and without objective truth being known by the audience because that’s how life really is.

Scott is saying, instead, that some perspectives do hold more weight than others, and I almost find this black and white morality to be a bit self-defeating and contradictory. Because yes, you come out of this movie knowing exactly what you’re supposed to feel, and it all rings quite true to me and I’m sure many others. But I struggle to see what is gained by the movie executing its message the way it does. It depicts the same scene of graphic sexual assault twice, ultimately trying to get the point across that from the woman’s perspective, it’s even more indefensible than previously assumed. But ultimately, both are indefensible and horrific, and I don’t see how this film’s handling of these issues gains any new or helpful information. It only, by my estimation, guarantees a good deal of traumatic distress by many women and men as well who’ve lived through such horrendous trauma.

I’m conflicted because it’s not as if the film constantly mishandles the subtlety and sensitivity around such a difficult problem that has persisted to this day in varying degrees. For example, the film doesn’t try to go down the route of “look how far we’ve come as a society,” but instead makes clear that society, for all its progress, is still far away from addressing the root issue and cause for why far too many men feel entitled to the mistreatment of women, and how it takes many forms beyond what we see from Jacque, in fact. The first section with Jean is fascinating in retrospect, because when we see his relationship with Marguerite through her eyes, there’s a more nuanced, bitter misogyny beneath his self-believing facade of chivalry. He thinks himself a great man, but we see far too quickly how he puts himself well ahead of the interests of the woman he claims to love. His pride comes at her expense, and he doesn’t even seem to register this as a possibility.

I’m still not completely sure where I stand with The Last Duel, and that’s certainly a good sign. I appreciate the risks the film takes, even if I don’t equally love all of them. The approach to the accents, for example, is far more distracting than not, as these American actors essentially do a tinge of fake “European voice” to develop a completely uneven dialect that sometimes regresses into camp. It’s a hard problem to solve when a film takes place in France, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more immersive this film might’ve been if it had been made with French actors. The actors we do get are fantastic, otherwise, so it’s not a major complaint. But I do think some will find it easier to accept than others.

The titular duel itself is also worth the time it takes to see (this is a long movie). I was definitely nervous about Scott doing all this buildup to propose that the fight itself is extremely petty and worthy of scorn, only to revel in the visceral excitement of a bloody fight that gets people to pump their fists. But instead, the fight is hard to watch, gruesome, and most importantly, ugly. It also has far more crucial stakes than I expected going in, where my heart was pounding the entire time. Not for these two men, but for the woman caught in such an impossible situation. So for that much, I can say that The Last Duel accomplishes quite a lot, even if it does force the audience to sit through some horrendous and arguably unnecessary trauma to get the whole picture.

The Last Duel is now available to watch in theaters through 20th Century Studios.

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