So are we collectively ready to admit that when it comes to swords and horses movies, no one does it better than Ridley Scott? Between Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven (the Director’s Cut), and even his 2010 version of Robin Hood, Scott’s really made a name for himself with this type of epic. Now, for the first of his two 2021 releases, he’s back at it with The Last Duel, which sees Matt Damon and Ben Affleck teaming up on a script for the first time since their iconic Good Will Hunting. And this time, they’ve brought in a third partner in Nicole Holofcener, who wrote Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
The difference between The Last Duel and the other medieval (or earlier) movies I mentioned (plus Exodus: Gods and Kings, which I’ve yet to see) is that it’s not quite an epic in the sense that the others are. There are a couple of battle sequences, but nothing quite to the scale of what he’s done before. The Last Duel takes place in late 14th century France or two reasons: because the events of the film almost perfectly mirror those of the #MeToo movement and because many of the mindsets that are present in the world of the film are still present today.
It takes a methodical approach to an interesting subject — Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is accused of sexually assaulting Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the wife of Jacques’ former friend Jean de Carrouges (Damon). Of course, the powers that be believe Le Gris, who denies all allegations, while Marguerite just wants to have her voice heard. The parallels are obvious. While the technical laws of modern society have changed (women are no longer a man’s property as they are here, for example), the basic principles are still present. Le Gris is handsome and charming, so he’s usually able to sleep with any woman he wants without repercussions or consent. But once he approaches Marguerite in this way, the tables have been turned for him.
Most notable in all of this is that no one actually seems to care about Marguerite’s position. Carrouges sees the assault as a transgression against himself, and he only married Marguerite in the first place to increase his land holdings. And of course, Le Gris has only been out for himself the entire time. The intention of the film isn’t to show us how we’ve progressed past the mindsets of the time (one man laughably says, “A rape cannot cause pregnancy. This is just science!”), but rather to hold a mirror up to our society to show us just how little progress we’ve made in the 635 years since the film’s titular last duel.
The way the writers and director have set up the plot, we see the events transpire three different times — first from the perspective of Carrouges, then the perspective of Le Gris, and finally from that of Marguerite herself. Each section is prefaced by a title card saying “The truth according to [insert character here],” but when it gets to Marguerite’s perspective the words, “the truth” linger just a bit longer than everything else. It’s obvious that this movie is meant to be a “believe women” vehicle, because while Marguerite just wants justice and a peaceful life, all that the men around her are able to do is act like brutes, constantly trying to passive aggressively one-up each other at every possible turn. (As a side note, it’s great to see Driver and Damon going back to their roots of playing two-faced miscreants)
This framing is exactly what causes the movie to be successful in my mind. Unequivocally stating that Marguerite’s version of the story is the true one — whether it’s historically accurate or not — puts a necessary level of conviction behind the film’s message: those in power will do whatever is necessary to stay in power, and those with even the slightest desire for it (or just an inferiority complex) will do whatever is necessary to achieve it. Damon didn’t write any part of the script to make his character look redeemable, nor should he have. And as for Affleck, he plays a French lord who buddies up with Le Gris and exudes a smarmy sleaziness which Affleck pulls off perfectly. And like Damon, his character is clearly not deserving of empathy.
Oddly, for a film about such a heavy and important subject, it feels like everyone behind it was having fun making it. Or at the very least, there was true care behind the scenes to make it the best and most honest it could be. Holofcener, Damon, and Affleck’s script does exactly what it needs to, and Scott is surprisingly subdued in his filmmaking. Apart from The Duel, there are only a couple of action sequences with swords flying everywhere. Otherwise, the physical setting and production design seem incidental. Meanwhile, the work in front of the camera from Comer and Driver specifically is predictably great.
As a Ridley Scott apologist, The Last Duel is a treat. I’m glad that he’s back to making movies that people can agree are great. This one even rivals the likes of Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven, and Thelma & Louise in its progressive point of view on hot button topics. I’d love to see more of it going forward.