Though slightly hobbled by its script’s unconventional style, The Last Duel soars when Jodie Comer takes center stage in the third act.
Cultural amnesia is a hell of a thing. In this post-#MeToo era, it’s easy for some to forget that systemic misogyny is not just a contemporary concern but a problem that has plagued us for centuries. There are plenty of predecessors to powerful and predatory men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, but their injustices don’t ignite ire in the public the same way these current cretins’ crimes do, and, as a result, their faults have faded with time – but this a wrong that Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Blade Runner) The Last Duel seeks to right. While women already well-versed in the never-ending enmity of man may find this historical retelling to be redundant, thanks to Scott’s (and co-writer Nicole Holofcener’s) sensitive handling of the story and a painfully poignant lead performance from Jodie Comer (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Free Guy), The Last Duel becomes a riveting and relevant screed against society’s dismissal of women’s suffering and our persistently perverse protection of monstrous men who have inflicted pain on others. Though it stumbles at the start due to its script’s subversive structure, the film finally comes to life when Comer takes center stage – and it never looks back.
The Last Duel relays its tragic tale via three perspectives of the epic’s central “event” – one from the point of view of Matt Damon’s (Good Will Hunting, The Martian) Jean de Carrouges, one from the point of view of his former friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, of Star Wars and Marriage Story), and one from the point of view of Carrouges’ mistreated wife, Marguerite (Comer). At the start, we follow Jean, a lowly squire who struggles to find favor with the local Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Gone Girl) or pay his levies on time, inviting further indignation from authorities. To restore his finances, he marries the young Marguerite, receiving a large dowry in the process from her father and gaining a slightly better standing in French society. However, he’s continually held back by his temper, which causes him to quarrel with his one-time confidante Jacques Le Gris, as he is brought into the Count’s inner circle and Carrouges is left on the outside looking in. And yet, such petty politics are the least of Carrouges’s problems, as, when is away at war or running other errands, Le Gris sets his sights on the squire’s wife and, in one particularly pernicious moment, rapes Marguerite. Upon hearing of the news, Carrouges challenges Le Gris to trial by combat – the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history, where God will decide who’s telling the truth in this matter, as only the honest shall survive.
When the project was announced, many (understandably) feared that The Last Duel was an ill-advised production meant to cash in on #MeToo talking points via salacious storytelling. Thankfully, such worries prove to be all for naught, as Scott and our trio of screenwriters (Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener) treat this subject matter with as much sensitivity as possible, and though they do allow each main player (Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite) the space to share their perspective of the story’s central “scandal,” this is not meant to contest Marguerite’s accusation whatsoever – instead, for example, by presenting Jacques’ perspective immediately prior to Marguerite’s, Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener are able to instantly illustrate to the audience how much he misjudged their interactions and how his assault of Marguerite was not the consensual act he poorly presumed it to be. Yes, The Last Duel does indeed depict this rape twice – once from Jacques’ view and once from Marguerite’s – but, once again, Scott and his screenwriters are not remotely trying to be sensationalistic with these scenes. For anyone who has experienced sexual assault, the sequences will no doubt be triggering due to their staggering realism, but when we live in a culture full of individuals who still misunderstand the meaning of consent, such a direct comparison and contrast of this encounter is sadly almost essential to show the vast discrepancy in the twos’ interpretations of this event.
With that being said, the script’s unconventional structure also sometimes works against it. By forcing us to sit through Jean’s perspective and Jacques’ perspective before we ever hear Marguerite’s side of the story, it’s easy to become disengaged before you get to the real meat of the movie, even if Comer’s powerhouse performance reignites your interest in mere seconds (but more on that in a moment). Furthermore, it can be said that Damon’s Carrouges didn’t need near as much screentime as his co-stars, as his section is easily the most detached from the main narrative, and, since he obviously isn’t actively involved in Marguerite’s assault, his anecdote adds the least to our comprehension of the atrocity committed against her. Sure, his “chapter” offers insight into his ongoing feud with Le Gris – something the latter’s chapter provides as well – but it’s hard not to wish that their warring took a backseat to the study of the shame Marguerite suffers from, which is instead solely reserved for the film’s final third. Likewise, as a result of making it so that each character can be seen interpreting key events in the story, we see certain scenes repeated multiple times, which proves pertinent at points (the aforementioned assault, Jacques and Marguerite’s supposed “flirtations”) and needlessly repetitive at others. And, revisiting these scenes can sometimes make the film feel smaller in scope and scale than it is, undercutting its efforts to assert itself as a Gladiator-esque epic.
Nevertheless, almost every possible problem you could have with The Last Duel’s first two acts fade away when “The Truth, According to Marguerite” comes onscreen. It was revealed prior to the film’s release that Holofcener specifically wrote this act of the script, and, with all due respect to Damon and Affleck, you can certainly feel the leap in quality when the Can You Ever Forgive Me? screenwriter starts to steer the ship. It’s not as if those two did a “poor” job by any means, but it’s only in The Last Duel’s last act when it becomes more than a merely honorably helmed historical drama, as Holofcener portrays the petrifying parallels between 14th Century France and 21st Century America in no uncertain terms and confronting the causticity of the citenzry with fierce frankness. Questions that feel far too familiar to modern day audiences are raised to discredit Marguerite’s accusation (particularly when it comes to the court’s persistence to prove that Marguerite “enjoyed” Le Gris’ attack, therefore making it “not rape”), while Holofcener also deftly explores the differing ideas of women at this time, when Jean’s mother Nicole (Harriet Walter, of Succession and Rocketman) admits to enduring an assault of her own in the past but keeping it to herself because that’s “just what women do.”
Throughout it all, Comer is a formidable force to be reckoned with, evolving from the reactive but reserved bystander in Jean and Jacques’ “truths” to a defiant defender of her lived experiences in her own act, staring down a dismissive society and holding her ground. How Comer is able to capture both profuse pain and stirring strength simultaneously is nothing short of extraordinary, with her always allowing us into the entirety of Marguerite’s emotional state via powerfully purposeful mannerisms and expertly meditated expressions. We don’t even need the movie to tell us Marguerite is in the right, as Comer wears her woe on her face in every scene, bearing the brunt of Le Gris’ brutality but forcing herself to fight anyway to see to it that he is held accountable and no other woman suffers as she does. Comer’s co-stars are commendable as well – Damon dutifully plays the petulant Jean as a man who thinks he’s a far better spouse and soldier than he truly is, Driver is captivating as the charming but capricious Le Gris, and Affleck is a horny hoot as a philandering count who perfectly personifies the poisoned mindsets of men in power – but this is Comer’s show through and through, and she makes sure you don’t forget it.
For most of the film, Scott’s direction is strong but not overly showy (though he should be praised for his admirable handling of the horrific assault), but he truly gets to flex as a filmmaker when the titular “last duel” takes place in the feature’s finale, harkening back to his Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven days with the monstrous and muscular manner in which he captures the conflict between Carrouges and Le Gris – a compelling capper on the 153-minute movie. And yet, no matter the outcome of the melee, Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener’s script wisely reminds us that there will be no “happy ending,” as, even if Jean and Marguerite “win the battle,” there’s a war that rages on to this day, and men like Le Gris have only multiplied. France may have had their last duel, but ours is still a long ways off – and if you take only one thing from this film, it should be that there’s no way forward for us or our society until we progress past the standards of nearly ten centuries past and start affording the Marguerites of our world the consideration and compassion they deserve.
The Last Duel is now showing in theaters worldwide.
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