The Last Duel was reviewed at the Venice Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will hit theaters on Oct. 15.
The Last Duel takes us back to a dark chapter in French history as director Ridley Scott strikes an unforgiving tone for this tale of gruesome, bloody combat. Based on true events, the film’s grim story and overwhelming bleak atmosphere sets the stage for an emotional tale of one woman’s fight for justice in the face of honor, duty, and so-called chivalry.
Fourteenth century France can be a hostile place – especially for a woman. This is even more true for a woman accusing a man of rape, as Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) soon finds out. Although The Last Duel largely focuses on how this plays out in a medieval court, it opens with the cut and thrust of the titular last duel. It’s certainly serious business, as knights Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver) gear up for a fight to the death. It’s all in the name of honor – Jacques has been accused of raping his former friend’s wife. But hold your horses, as there’s a lot more at stake than meets the eye.
After giving us a brief yet brutal glimpse of the duel that’s about to ensue, takes us back to the very beginning, telling the story in several chapters. Breaking it down by individual testimony, we watch the same story unfold several times. First, we see the truth according to Jean de Carrouges, followed by that of the accused, Jacques LeGris. Finally, the whole truth is revealed by none other than Jacques’ victim, Marguerite de Carrouges. At first glance, it may seem like a labored way to tell this story, but it’s used to sublime effect, highlighting the unreliable nature of each man’s version of events as they bend and twist the truth to suit their own ends. It’s a damning examination of both Jean and Jacques as their individual character flaws are laid bare. The first scene in both of their testimonies underscores this perfectly – an epic, sweeping battle sees both men claiming to have saved the life of the other. Clearly, they both want to paint themselves as the heroes of their own story, and by basking in heroic light, they embody the very meaning of honor and chivalry. At least, that’s how they see themselves.
Soon enough, even bigger cracks begin to form between each man’s version of events. Jean enamours us with a love story: a chance meeting with Marguerite unfolding as the pair relishes in the smaller, more intimate moments with a glance here, a knowing smile there. Meanwhile, Jacques paints a very different picture. His story depicts Jean as a cold, callous man with very little love for his wife. Instead, Jacques says it is he who really loves Marguerite… and he claims that she feels the same.
These discrepancies are played perfectly all round by Comer, Damon, and Driver. The real cleverness in Scott’s approach to this story is in how its relationships change in the most subtle of ways from one version to the next.
The coy flirting between Jean and Marguerite becomes a “strange match” when Jacques recounts his story. And while there’s undeniable chemistry between Comer and Driver – especially in Jacques’ version of events – this soon breaks down into a gruelling, hard-hitting depiction of rape by the time Marguerite gets to tell her story.
Ridley Scott sets an unforgiving tone for this tale of gruesome, bloody combat.
Scott doesn’t shy away from the brutal, horrific nature of it, either. Instead, you’re forced to face the reality of Marguerite’s full testimony, watching in horror as it all unfolds. This, too, changes from one account to the next – Marguerite recounts a harrowing moment when she fights back against Jacques’ violent demands. However, Jacques claims that it was all consensual, and merely the “customary protest” of a married woman who has fallen in love with another man.
Comer is the standout star here, vacillating in each account between dutiful wife, adulterous woman, and world-weary rape victim as the scene demands, playing each with staggering realism. But the question remains – will Marguerite de Carrouges find justice?
“There is no right,” remarks Jean’s mother (Harriet Walter). “There is only the power of men.”
That’s essentially what The Last Duel boils down to: a fight between two men to determine the veracity of a woman’s rape claim. It’s a stark and self-aware reminder of the struggle that many women face, even today. As much a cautionary tale as a legendary one, the seriousness of the story is backed by its atmospheric setting. Scott uses a palette of subdued greys and stony castle walls to create a grim, almost claustrophobic feel. You can feel the weight of the film’s world in almost every scene.
That said, a memorable performance by Ben Affleck as the eccentric (and thoroughly debauched) Count Pierre d’Alençon adds a touch of levity when it’s needed most. The foul-mouthed slurs of a nobleman who does as he pleases break up the often grinding tone of the movie, while a glimpse of his bedroom antics reminds us that even the noble house is not without corruption.
The Last Duel is a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling, allowing its complex plot to unfold naturally over three distinct chapters. Re-treading that story from different perspectives allows Ridley Scott to break down the virtues of those involved, calling them into question as they’re put under the spotlight.
The Last Duel is a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling.
Throw in some sweeping, epic battle scenes for good measure and you have an almost scientific examination of the medieval historical epic. But it’s far more than that – it’s also a keen look at a moment in French history which reflects the struggles women face to this day.