I’d love to see a documentary about how the rousing and epic and bloody fantastic historical drama “The Last Duel” came to be, given that the legendary director Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner”) is working from a screenplay by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (their first collaboration since “Good Will Hunting”) and Nicole Holofcener, the brilliant filmmaker whose pinpoint modern screenplays for movies such as “Lovely and Amazing” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” are about as far away from the mud and gruel and grime of the Hundred Years’ War as you can possibly get. Who wrote what? And how did this collaboration come together?
Also, our imaginary documentary would have to include a segment devoted to the wigs. Oh my, the wigs.
Filled with big performances, breathtaking cinematography and expertly choreographed battle sequences that put you right there in the middle of the gruesome chaos, “Gladiator”-style, “The Last Duel” is an unabashedly old-fashioned and richly satisfying tale of noblemen and peasants, of hedonism and intellectualism, of brave knights and scheming tricksters – and, of course, there’s a love story as well, and although at first it seems to be the stuff of fairy tales, let’s just say it doesn’t play out the way one might expect.
“The Last Duel” is one of those movies that are set in the France of the late Middle Ages and all the main characters are French and have names such as Jacques and Jean and Pierre – but everyone speaks English (save for a few throwaway lines and a song), and for the most part they don’t even bother with French accents, and we just go with it because ever since we’ve had sound in cinema we’ve had movies set in foreign lands where everybody just happens to speak the King’s English.
After a prologue in which two squires prep for a duel as if they’re NFL players suiting up for the Sunday Game of the Week, we’re plunged into battle with Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges defying orders and commanding his men to get across that stream and save those people – and during the course of the violent clash that leaves corpses and mutilated soldiers strewn everywhere, Jean saves the life of his longtime friend, the dashing Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, looking like the most handsome cast member of a particularly flashy medieval times tournament and dinner ensemble). This Jean de Carrouges is a real hero!
At least that’s the way it plays out in the first third of the story, which is told from Jean’s point of view. With Damon sporting one of the most unfortunate mullets in movie history and a nasty spiderweb of a scar on his cheek, the brutish but valiant Jean finds himself at odds with the powerful and wealthy and hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alencon (a hilarious Ben Affleck, almost unrecognizable under a bleached-blond Beatles hairdo) and eventually with Le Gris, who has become a consigliere of sorts to Count Pierre and is always working some angle to thwart the uneducated and unsophisticated Jean.
When the newly knighted Jean marries a disgraced nobleman’s daughter, the beautiful Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and thus claims her dowry, it appears Jean has achieved everything he ever wanted – but when Jean goes off to fight yet another battle for country and king, Le Gris snakes his way into the house and rapes Marguerite. At a time when most victims of sexual assault would remain quiet, Marguerite tells her husband and then goes public with the accusation, resulting in a trial in which it’s decided Jean and Le Gris will duel to the death. If Jean dies, Marguerite will be tortured and executed because that will “prove” she was lying. If Le Gris falls, Jean and Marguerite will be vindicated and will be free to live out their lives.
“The Last Duel” shifts viewpoints twice more – first to show events from Le Gris’ P.O.V., and then, in the last act, through Marguerite’s eyes. This “Rashomon” technique is put to great use, as we see Jean transform from mighty warrior – filmed in close-ups, with the camera often tilting up to show his greatness – into a clod, the butt of jokes, and a brute who treats Marguerite only slightly better than his horses. (And in fact, when Le Gris is accused of a crime, it’s not categorized as an assault against Marguerite; it’s a violation of another man’s property.)
There’s no ambiguity about the rape; even though Le Gris maintains it was consensual, even when the attack is seen from his viewpoint, it’s rape. That Marguerite has to endure deeply personal and insulting questions in court, that even her circle of friends doesn’t believe her, that it’s her reputation on the line, has obvious and relevant parallels to #MeToo. Comer does a magnificent job of playing a woman who is born of her times and stuck in that world, and yet has a bigger heart and is just as brave as all those men killing each other on the field of battle.
Nothing about “The Last Duel” is subtle. Just about everything about “The Last Duel” is brutally effective.