Stream it or skip it?
With The last duel, Ridley Scott goes medieval with the modern feminist movement — because, you know, it’s literally set in the 14th century. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon reunite as co-stars and co-writers, with screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, for something that doesn’t even look like this Goodwill hunting. It’s hard to take Affleck and Damon seriously in this film, in part because their hairdressers seem to be playing jokes on them – don’t call him Mullet Damon, please – but this fictionalized account of a real event ends by veering into heavy territory. So yeah, how about that, it’s a BOATS (Based On A True Story) movie that’s pretty far removed from modern times – that’s how it goes in the trial by combat movies – but still manages to incorporate anachronistic language, just stopping short of hashtags. So is it too #MeToo to be credible? Let’s find out.
The essential: PARIS, 1386. Two absolutely virile men, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), put on armor and mount their horses. They’ll start with a joust, then maybe move on to swords or battle axes, and from there let the day take them wherever they please. Now 1370: Sir John’s truth will follow, a title card explains. It’s a simpler time, when Jean and Jacques were friends, saving their lives in a big bloody confrontation that they and their French comrades end up losing, oops. And yet, Jean and Jacques return as MEN to the suburbs of Paris where they own land and bow to a pompous blond surfer donkey known as Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). Jump to 1377, and Jacques works as a debt collector for Pierre, shaking Jean for the dough he owes. The plague ravaged the land and left Jean a widower, and also in dire financial straits, but he is a sincere man, straight as an arrow on a gray day in shabby semi-rural medieval France, and he will do to through.
Next, NORMANDY, 1380, where there is another fierce battle in which John fights and blood flows. He gets paid to do that, you see. He returns and makes a business deal with local disgraced lord Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker): Jean will marry Robert’s daughter, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). She is exuberant and blonde, but Count Pierre’s hair is ultimately lighter. She and Jean get married and go to bed to make him an heir. A little later, there’s a scene where real burly men like Jean are climbing up a path and a woman is chasing geese out of their way. DON’T GET CRUSHED, YE GEESE. There is a property dispute between Jean and Count Pierre and his lackey Jacques, spoiling the friendship. A YEAR LATER, a sez subtitle, and I’ve lost track of when we watch things happen. Is it important? Is it still PARIS, 1386? Not enough. Jean makes peace with Jacques, sealed by a kiss from Marguerite, and the contact of their lips can be a moment, if the pause in the narrative thrust is any indication. Soon, Jean returns to battle and is officially knighted. SCOTLAND, 1385 tells us the movie, and lo, do we feel oriented in a time and place, even if it’s not that different from NORMANDY, 1380 or WHEREVER THEY WERE, 1377.
John returns after getting his ass kicked in SCOTLAND, 1385, where a man has been shot in the face with a flaming arrow, and soon after, it’s finally PARIS, 1386, but not yet the exciting part of the PARIS duel , 1386. Our protagonist returns home to find Marguerite distraught. Jacques forced his way into the house and imposed himself on her, she says. Jean is calm but angry and pushes the accusation to court. This being the era of feudalism, Count Pierre is the judge, but Jean knew the inevitable acquittal of Jacques was coming and had a plan. With no witnesses to the crime, it’s just a He Said, She Said situation, meaning Jean can challenge Jacques to a duel to the death. “God will spare those who speak the truth,” John insists, literally throwing down his glove in front of the king.
Then comes part of the second, and part of the third, and thank goodness for sparing us from telling the truth that we’re tired of putting signs floating at the bottom of the screen, because there won’t be any more . They are not necessary, as the previous events will be revisited from the point of view of Jacques and Marguerite, respectively. In the Jacques chapter, we learn that he is very cultured, and also of the vigorous type, leaving for many orgies with Count Pierre. And this is where Jean’s face becomes more belligerent, modest and square, the war scar on his cheek suddenly on the wrong side of the beautiful/ugly divide. This time, we witness the forbidden encounter between Jacques and Marguerite, which he says was basically just rough sex preceded by his “usual protest.” The church is on his side, of course. And shortly afterwards, with a grandiose gesture of his cape, he picks up Jean’s glove.
What movies will this remind you of? : (Takes the most pretentious and condescending tone possible) It’s time to go watch Rashomon, children.
Performance to watch: Not to be overlooked is Comer’s fiery and nuanced performance, which gives the film its vital emotional hook. But Affleck is the real scene-stealer, a wry, sarcastic presence who livens up proceedings with ridiculous line-readings and a playfully over-the-top personification of a most toxic form of masculinity. It seems like a small miracle that these two performances exist in the same film, and that it remains watchable as well.
Memorable dialogue: Nicole nails the theme: “There is no ‘right’. There is only the power of men.
Sex and skin: Potentially upsetting scenes of sexual assault; male and female nudity.
Our opinion : I know – we haven’t covered Marguerite’s version of the truth yet, which is when The last duel really finds its dramatic place, deep within its 150-minute runtime. It goes from Jean’s bland and direct narrative, to Jacques’ flippant and arrogant POV, to Marguerite’s unsettling and horrifying trauma. His point of view is free from the boring drudgery of men and their business, from their bickering over tufts of grass, at court or at war. It is a good and generous heart that runs the stables effectively in Jean’s absence, clashes with Nicole (mothers-in-law, I tell you!) and squirms courageously under Jean’s grumbling missionary directives. She is ambitious, patient, strong and vulnerable, and ends up horrified to learn that if Jean loses the duel, she will be executed as punishment for false accusations. It would seem that her choices in this situation range from ugly to horrible, and culturally backward as it might be to have her husband’s prowess with sword and shield determine his fate, it would certainly help if Jean didn’t lose, and so of course we support him, because a scene in which dear Marguerite is burned at the stake is a scene that we would really rather not see.
It really is a Ridley Scott film – expensive, visually immersive, engrossing and well paced, with intense and tense action sequences, enough for the finale, the duel finally done, to make you mumble: “That was enough barbaric, even for 1386. It’s awkward, and thematically counter-intuitive, that the violence is more believable than the direct way the film handles the discussion of sexual assault, thankfully the two elements are equal in their lack of subtlety. And yet, Scott never quite evens the tone, shifting from clownish male stares – scenes that seem to do little more than set up a big showdown between The Mullet and, well, Adam Driver’s Locks – to drama. sober and heartbreaking from Marguerite’s chronology of events.
If you’re an apologist, you’d say such disparity is precisely the point. It would perhaps be easier to accept such an argument if the chapter of Jacques did not come so close to satire, and that of Marguerite to melodrama. I’m not sure I buy the adaptation of 21st century themes to medieval times, especially in the crude dialogue exchanges; the film leans heavily on the tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know territory when it argues that human culture hasn’t progressed enough since a time when the grotesque violation of its wife was “a matter of ownership”. “The script is a fact-based account of one of the last trials by combat in French history, and it bears a fair sword – fair enough, anyway, to be effective as an almost metaphorical experiment. , although not always accurate.
Our call: SPREAD IT. The last duel is highly watchable, with entertaining performances from its male stars offset by Comer’s fiery performance. It’s also a tonal mish-mash, but that’s not enough to dissuade you from giving it a shot.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
Where to stream The last duel