To tell a story that’s been told before, Ridley Scott’s new film does something a little familiar, and a little different. His medieval epic based on the book of the same name by Eric Jager—concerning the last judicial duel of France—is conveyed across three chapters. In a narrative device easily comparable to Rashomon, another film which details the conflicting accounts surrounding a rape, the script (co-penned by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck alongside Nicole Holofcener), sends us back to the beginning three times. The Last Duel retreads the path already taken, but each occasion with a different guide. In some instances, diplomatic actions become violent ones, off-handed glances become indicative of deceit, relationships drastically change, words take on different meanings, and the world is suddenly observed as if we were seeing it for the very first time.
Which is why, when we are introduced to the knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), we come face-to-face with a grizzled, esteemed war hero. He charges into a brutal battle and valiantly hacks away at the enemy forces. Spears enter chests, viscera is sliced, blood sprays to near-comical effect. The squelching of flesh, cracking of bones and clanging of metal is amplified by the film’s impeccable sound design, battle sequences defined by the kineticism of Dariusz Wolski’s camerawork. In this first chapter, we see the world as Carrouges sees it, and it’s a world where he is a respected fighter and dutiful husband who has been wronged by his former friend, and who expresses compassion and swift wrath against the man who committed the sin of rape against his young wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). But as the narrative shifts over, we understand that this is not entirely true. Carrouges is perceived as something of a dimwitted blowhard in the eyes of Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), former friend to Carrouges on the battlefield and squire to Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). Pierre d’Alençon and his squire are infamous womanizers, engaging in orgies and gossiping about how much they hate Jean de Carrouges (which is often funny just by sheer virtue of Affleck and Damon’s real-life friendship).
Through the eyes of Jacques le Gris, the man accused by Marguerite of rape, there was only ever mutually adulterous lust simmering between the two of them. A reluctant kiss from Marguerite planted on his lips by order of Carrouges, as a sign of public contrition between the embattled men, held more than just the weight of penitence but of newfound desire. So, when le Gris visited Marguerite at her home one day and professed his undying love for her, during a period when Carrouges was off waging wars, and Carrouges’ frigid mother (Harriet Walter) took their servants and left Marguerite in their castle by herself, her protesting was only part of the standard amount a woman does when you express plans to bed her, as le Gris relays to d’Alençon. Le Gris and Marguerite had shared a brief interaction following that first pivotal kiss, in which a lightly flirtatious dynamic grew from their intellect and appreciation for literature. That’s all the contact that was required for le Gris to fall in love and to feel he had received the OK from Marguerite to be intimate with her.
Of course, Marguerite’s chapter provides the most conclusive account of the story, articulating a life lived only at the whims of men. And in the eyes of Marguerite, Carrouges is nothing but a brute she was forced to love, and le Gris is a lustful freak to whom she is only superficially attracted. You understand fully how her marriage to Carrouges was already an act of violation, an arrangement ordained with the primary objective to obtain the land and financial stability assumed by Marguerite’s dowry. Women are exchanged for the property they subsume from their families and for the next line of men they may bear from their loins, establishing their lives as immaterial in and of themselves. An act of rape against a married woman is not a crime against the woman, but against the husband’s property, we later learn. The character is handled elegantly by Comer, who carries Marguerite with composure masking the ubiquitous glint of terror in her eyes; the quivering yet entirely routine fear of a person whose personhood has been rendered negligible from birth.
Meanwhile, who’s to say what accents are on display from the American actors in this film. Driver—whom I occasionally found myself imagining as his character from Girls: An aspiring actor, trying his first serious role on for size—flits between barely distinguishable British and something bordering on Transatlantic; Damon is not trying one at all; and Affleck falls somewhere in the middle of both of them, putting on an affectation that comes and goes depending on the scene. But it’s never truly distracting, and adds to the unintentional (intentional?) humor that hangs on the periphery. Affleck is, at first, entirely unbelievable in the role of a medieval lord. What’s that tweet about how some actors just have faces that know about texting? This isn’t improved by the decision to put the dark-haired Affleck in sandy blond, both he and Damon cursed with especially dire tresses (Damon looks like a guy I’d see in the crowd at a shitty hardcore show in high school). But the initial unease at Affleck in a 14th century period piece is largely done away with once you settle into the ingenious casting of him as a dirtbag, medieval playboy who says things like, “Take your fucking pants off,” with ease, and his presence becomes a recurrent delight.
It is simple to dub Scott’s film a medieval take on #MeToo, and, well, OK, it is. It’s an easily applicable, overtly modern allegory about the implications of coming forward on charges of sexual assault—how women can be just as complicit in the pervasion of rape culture as men are in perpetrating it, and how the costs of saying anything at all can be so dire that it is not worth saying anything at all. But these are things we already know. Such commentary has been done to death at this point, and frequently in ways which come across as tone-deaf and trite. Instead, Damon, Affleck and Holofcener have penned a skilled illustration of how men see the world differently, and how rape culture is born out of these lived-in blind spots. The decision to tell the 150-minute story through three separate ones not only begets a stunningly compelling narrative that allows for multi-layered characters, but it’s a gimmick that gets to the very heart of what the film is trying to say: When men fundamentally see the world in opposition to women, and when that world is then attuned to their whims, there can be only one truth. Ridley Scott directing a grand, riveting medieval epic that doubles as an analysis of gender dynamics might be unexpected, but The Last Duel manages to effortlessly combine Scott’s action sensibilities with an empathetic thread between the past and present.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.