Trigger Warning: The film The Last Duel is centered on a rape. As such, the content of the film may be difficult to discuss without bringing up specifics that may be triggering to some individuals.
More and more it seems that if men have the choice to think themselves superior to women, they’ll choose that over conceiving of any kind of personal responsibility in which they are actually inferior. This isn’t some neo-feminist notion that brings me to this conclusion, it’s merely a look at history. If one looks at American History, for instance, in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution afforded women the right to own property. It would be 51 years until the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. Throughout history, despite women being as much a necessity for the survival of humankind as men, the view of women as little more than instruments to make more men (particularly in European cultures) is one that continues to this day in the form of the Men’s Rights Movement or Red Pillers (a notion co-opted from a film made my two transwomen, if you enjoy irony). Examining such a mentality is director Ridley Scott’s (Gladiator) The Last Duel, a cinematic adaptation of the real events leading up to the 1386 trial by combat duel which would determine whether or not Jacques Le Gris sexually assaulted the wife of Jean de Carrouges in a script co-written by Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Matt Damon (Stillwater), and Ben Affleck (The Tender Bar). Depending on who you talk to, the film is either one of the worst or one of the best films to be underseen in 2021, which, I think, goes to show just how much perspective matters in real or imagined life.
Two friends serving as knights for French king Charles VI (Alex Lawther) have a falling out, first due to political ambition, and then further still due to an act of violence most egregious. These two friends, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), go from the closest of supporters to literally fighting to the death because Le Gris denies sexually assaulting Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Over the course of the film, the audience is shown three perspectives, one from each of the central characters, each one just a little different, but, ultimately, ending with the truth.
In a lot of the discussion of Scott’s The Last Duel, there’s been comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 crime drama Rashômon. It, too, tells a story in which a crime is committed and the film lays out the different ways members of the cast saw the events take place. Unlike cinema, which more often possesses a clear version of what the filmmaker considers “truth,” what we think of truth is merely how we perceive things as they are filtered through our senses and experiences. Two people could very well be in the same room listening to a speaker and come away with vastly different ideas about what the speaker was saying. All of this is to say that Scott very clearly has his own interpretation of events and they fall squarely in the corner of Marguerite. As presented in the film, Marguerite is treated as little more than cattle, a stepping stone for Carrouges to earn back favor with King Charles IV and maintain a style of living to which he believes he’s entitled. In the first portion, he believes himself to be an honorable person doing honorable things, treating Marguerite with incredible respect and care. In the second portion, from Le Gris’s perspective, Carrouges is loving, but not overly so and Marguerite would much prefer to leave his company. What we see in both perspectives is that Marguerite is intelligent, understands how the game is played, and is more than capable of offering insight to those willing to hear it; something which Carrouges sees himself as being open to receiving. In the third portion, however, all truths are laid bare and it’s here that we, the audience, see just how selfish and cowardly Carrouges and Le Gris are, incapable of seeing themselves as anything less than the hero of the story. Does this mean that the audience must endure Le Gris’s violation of Marguerite twice, yes. There’s been a lot of arguments over whether seeing it more than once is necessary (if at all) and, in my opinion, it does matter because how Comer presents Marguerite before, during, and after very much matters in a film that’s examining perspective. Thankfully, Scott is gracious enough to not make the act gratuitous or lengthy (something which, I feel, is a lovely middle-finger to Le Gris and his perception of what manhood is), a choice which seems to take the audience into account as a measure of respect to Marguerite herself. I phrase it that way because the first two perspectives come from the men, both of whom feel slighted by the other and who take great offense at the accusation of the assault. In the final perspective, that of Marguerite, Scott moves her to the forefront, as the actual person aggrieved and in need of justice, highlighting it as being the actual truth in the title card. Scott gives Comer, as Marguerite, proper agency in her section that is truly missing from the previous two, showing just how badly these two men are blinded by their own perspectives to see or even consider anyone else. That the duel is set to happen isn’t because Carrouges believes his wife, but because she is deemed property by the law and, according to the law of the era, Carrouges is the one to be given justice not her. In fact, if Carrouges falls in combat, she’ll be murdered under the law. The entire film highlights the failures of the patriarchy and the ways in which men will twist themselves into knots rather than admit their own failings or how they’re not the chivalrous beings they so proclaim themselves to be.
As strong as the response was to The Last Duel online, I’m glad to report that the home release does include special features. Sadly, it’s only one featurette, “The Making of The Last Duel,” but it’s over 30 minutes and is more of a boots-on-the-ground documentary than a traditional featurette. If you thought that Scott’s response to journalists’ questions about The Last Duel was salty, “The Making of” demonstrates that the F-word is in common usage for the accomplished director. He dispenses the word as calmly as any other as he offers directions, thoughts, or ideas about how to set up a shot. This is, of course, not the only word he knows, so please don’t misunderstand my intent by mentioning this. Many of Scott’s films are celebrated works and this featurette, shot by Cuba Scott (Ridley’s granddaughter), captures not just the making of the film but the way in which Scott manages his sets to achieve his vision. For one, Cuba asks great questions of Scott that, given his reaction to journalists, might have gotten rougher answers, but he understands her genuine interest and answers in kind. This gives us, the home viewer, the opportunity to see how he approaches shots, how he works with his actors, crew, script supervisor, everyone. For two, Cuba manages to put us right on set with Scott so that we feel like we’re there with him. Wonderfully edited, “The Making of” contains moments where we’re listening to Scott talk through the set-up of a shot before cutting to the storyboards or script and back again, giving the featurette itself cinematic momentum. Personally, as fascinating as it was to learn he was shooting multiple angles at once in order to capture the actors’ reactions fresh as scenes unfolded in front of them instead of going back to shoot coverage, what I enjoyed most was seeing the quieter moments, as when Scott approached Comer before shooting her trial scene and noticing the tender way they engaged each other. For all the energy which may seem aggressive or salty, he’s still an actor’s director and clearly has a great care for their work. I would advise you all, when you go to watch it, to be ready to turn on captions as the combination of COVID-19 protocols obstructing vocal projection, the score volume being too loud, and the speed of jumping from one thing to another often resulted in an inability to process information I was hearing. Being able to read along made the information within the featurette easier to absorb and made me more likely to appreciate what I was learning about his approach to filming.
As the review copy I was provided by 20th Century Studios is a digital copy, I can’t speak to the fidelity of sound or picture on the home release as this edition is more tied to my streaming service and the version provided to said service, compared to physical release which cannot be tweaked or updated once sent out for purchase.
All in all, having now seen the film, I understand why some found the approach to the story to be triggering, while also having appreciation for the film itself. It’s not one that I’d curl up to watch as I might Gladiator, but it’s still a beautiful film whose 152-minute runtime only starts to feel lengthy when the rehash of events starts to get old. Beyond this, it’s clear that Scott hasn’t lost his touch for telling a compelling action-centric story, each sequence serving to communicate some advancement in story or character and not just for the sake of it. Even the assault, as I mentioned above, is treated with a certain reverence rather than a sort of glee which other directors might mistake for art or necessity. Rather, Scott seems far more interested in preserving the dignity of Marguerite at all times, allowing the men to earn the ridicule and hate they deserve with each foul word and deed. Of the two films he released this year, The Last Duel should truly be the one in discussion for awards over Gucci, in part due to the cast’s ability to make us believe in their villainy or integrity, but mostly for its unabashed perspective and respect for truth.
The Last Duel Special Features
- The Making of The Last Duel – With the documentary “The Making of The Last Duel,” get unprecedented access to renowned director Ridley Scott as he collaborates with the cast and crew to make critical decisions about location, cinematography and performances. (33:48)
Available on digital November 30th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD December 14th, 2021.
For more information, head to 20th Century Studios’ official The Last Duel website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.