The Last Duel is a film full of contradictions; indeed, the contradictions are the point. This is not the first time this kind of subject matter has been handled this way, with multiple perspectives and the ephemeral nature of truth. This isn’t even Ridley Scott’s first foray into French dueling stories; his first film The Duellists covered similar territory, although it does not have the shifting perspectives of The Last Duel.
If The Duellists and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon played chicken on a backcountry road, the resulting car crash would be The Last Duel. It’s a spectacular wreck, too, full of fire, metal, and devastation. This is a brutal movie.
The screenplay, written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, gives us three different takes on one story, and what is real and what is merely perception are weaved through each narrative like patterns in a tapestry. This is Damon and Affleck’s first collaboration for more than 20 years.
Good Will Hunting‘s script was a lengthy process that came into focus over time and many rewrites, but The Last Duel comes from true events (as well as a book by Eric Jager). This story has remained the subject of intense debate in France for many years, and while the movie has a definitive take on what happened, the story will surely be analyzed for many years to come.
On December 29, 1386, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) fought Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) over accusations that Le Gris raped de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The duel is a culmination of much history between de Carrouges and Le Gris – they began as fellow soldiers and friends, but Le Gris’ master, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) does not think much of de Carrouges, and the Count’s disdain for him begins to affect de Carrouges and Le Gris’ relationship.
The film begins, divided by three chapters, with de Carrouges’ take on events, then with Le Gris’ perspective, and then Marguerite’s truth of what happened. The film is not ambiguous about what is real and what is fiction – it is Marguerite’s version of events that is factual, and both de Carrouges and Le Gris have different interpretations of Marguerite’s truth.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s first collaboration since Good Will Hunting will likely be the thrust of any conversation about the film, but it is Nicole Holofcener who guides and shapes this material. Holofcener has written and directed many films over the past twenty years, including Friends With Money, Enough Said, and wrote the screenplay for Can You Ever Forgive Me? This is sensitive material, especially in the age of cancel culture and Me Too, and Holofcener, Affleck, and Damon navigate this material deftly, keeping one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
While The Last Duel takes place in medieval times, it always feels contemporary, and we understand that we may not be as brutal as we were in the past, very little has changed. Whether through swords or through other means, violence has always been the default for men, while women must endure the judgment and the scorn of the rest of the world, regardless of the truth.
The actors eschew accents, thankfully, or The Last Duel would be insufferable. Scott wisely focuses on the intensity of the performances rather than any historical accuracy, so we are not distracted by how successfully or how badly the actors’ accents would mangle the dialogue. All the performances are good, but there are standouts; while Matt Damon and Adam Driver are the focus of their chapters and serve the material well, it is Ben Affleck and Jodie Comer that rise above it.
Affleck’s Count Pierre is a hoot, full of Dionysian lust and good humor, but also serving as a bad influence on Driver’s Le Gris. Affleck’s playful performance gives The Last Duel much needed humor; while it always takes its subject matter seriously, Affleck provides necessary uplift. It is one of his best roles in years, and it is not difficult to see why he chose to play this part instead of the more dour roles of de Carrouges or Le Gris.
Jodie Comer as Marguerite is exceptional, bringing her righteous fury, her vulnerability, and her dignity to the front. Marguerite finds her own strength in the truth, and while she may be mere property by others, her truth will have its say. Comer gives Marguerite grace and intelligence.
While de Carrouges and Le Gris play at offense and indignity, Marguerite stands alone and steadfast. Jodie Comer is terrific.
Scott’s skill as a director with his actors is without question, but it is unfortunate that he chooses to give us such bland and bleached out cinematography with The Last Duel. Dariusz Wolski has worked with Ridley Scott before, but unlike Prometheus and The Martian, The Last Duel is shot so darkly and so dreary.
He has been Scott’s go-to cinematographer for many years, and has mostly been very good, but The Last Duel could have used more variation, especially through each chapter. As each perspective shifts to the next, a difference in visual perspective would have worked well here. The duel itself is shot well, though, full of intensity and danger.
This is one of Ridley Scott’s better films, and although due to outside circumstances, the film has unfortunately been on a shelf for a while, it is no less impactful for being delayed. The performances are first rate, the message is timely, and the script is strong.
Trailers have not done The Last Duel proper service; although there is violence and action, the centerpiece of the film is very much on the work of the actors involved. The Last Duel is intelligent and thoughtful about how it approaches sensitive material, and remains entertaining and thought provoking throughout its runtime.