by Alexander C. Kafka
The Last Duel is a compelling wide-screen-worthy medieval period drama with exemplary production values — all the more admirable given its disrupted filming schedule during the pandemic. But the project is also a fascinating psycho-cultural phenomenon: a primarily male-helmed Me Too-era exercise in brutal masculine mutual and self-punishment.
The true tale was adapted by Nicole Holofcener, with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, from a book by Eric Jager. It is directed by the ubiquitous Ridley Scott, who also has a production credit. Damon is a 14th-century French knight, Sir Jean de Carrouges, whose onetime comrade in arms, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), alienates and subverts him, then allegedly rapes Jean’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The titular duel will render God’s verdict on whether Le Gris is telling the truth in his profession of innocence. If he is, then not only will Jean perish but so will Marguerite — bound and burned alive. Jean’s corrosive pride, sneaky mother, and trouble conceiving an heir twist the tale further, as do plague-era economics and royal politics.
Reviews have prominently noted The Last Duel’s feminist spin. The script has a three-perspective Rashomon story structure from the viewpoints of the two knights and then of the lady in question, and what fools men be is certainly a key takeaway.
But there’s more going on than that — an expiation, a cathartic self-sacrifice, of the male Hollywood ethos itself. Knights confess, or try to pummel each other into confession. And the film feels like a giant testosterone- and angst-spilling plea for forgiveness.
In this way, the story’s little deaths, as the French would have it, are echoed in its big deaths. The Last Duel has its ass-kicking cake with gender-studies icing — and eats it too.
The screen is splattered with men’s blood, entrails, and decapitated heads in close battle. Even its most enlightened, loyal, and thoughtful male characters are self-centered pigs and/or conniving and hypocritical clergy. Their rutting seems just another form of combat. The duel that frames the narrative features the main male characters annihilating each other before the ankle-bound, slippered heroine and a crowd of simultaneously enraptured and disgusted effete court gentry. Special carnage, exposure, and humiliation is reserved for the combatants’ groins and mouths. One imagines Caravaggio and Freud sitting together in the audience and sharing a pack of licorice.
Scott’s direction is brisk in the action but takes its time Man for All Seasons style in the gloomily lit interior set pieces. Visually, the movie is a feast, with Arthur Max’s production design, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, Janty Yates’s incredible costuming, and the efforts of a gaggle of art directors. Harry Gregson-Williams’s musical score is refreshingly period appropriate and restrained, in contrast to the usual migraine-inducing bombast of the epic-composer mills.
The leads are also excellent. Damon is solid, stolid, or sputtering, depending whose version of events we’re in. His medieval mullet is a little distracting, however authentic, but the makeup crew did a great job de-glamming him with believably intricate scars and muck.
Driver has fun with his role’s wider affective range — from sinister whisper to irritated rebuke, and battlefield bellow to orgasmic grunt-sigh. He has a nice flair with a cape too. His Kylo Ren Star Wars training might’ve helped with that.
Comer’s role too is rich, from glowing maidenhood to put-upon wifely duties. By law, she is chattel. But she has a will of iron.
Affleck, his hair frosted blond, has fun as the supercilious, lecherous Count Pierre d’Alençon. Zeljko Ivanek, whom you may remember as the trusty adviser in Madame Secretary, is here a wonderfully smarmy, untrusty cleric suitably named Le Coq. And Alex Lawther, as King Charles VI, has an enjoyably juvenile enthusiasm around gore and sex and a fabulously bored look amid his more bureaucratic functions. Harriet Walter is also memorably icy as Jean’s widowed mother Nicole. Her judgmental stare will shrink your heart, and maybe other parts of you too.
“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men,” she tells her son. And the power of men, whether in Black Death France or Covid Hollywood, is a potent force not just in domination but in self-flagellation.