Cinema has often interrogated the power and meaning of truth. What is it? How do we get to it? How do we accept it? A truth can shatter a life, or multiple lives. It’s a scary thing by itself, and it is even scarier when lives depend on it and on whether one person is believed or not.
14th century France. Jean de Carrouges (Academy Award winner Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Academy Award nominee Adam Driver) are close friends, knights of the kingdom of France and valiant fighters on the field. Their friendship takes a turn when the two are pit against each other by Pierre d’Alençon (Academy Award winner Ben Affleck), a hedonistic, snarky and manipulative Count who chooses Jacques as his own squire. Crippled by debt and hurt in his honor, de Carrouges proposes to marry Lady Marguerite de Thibouville (Emmy Award winner Jodie Comer), daughter of the once wealthy but despised Robert de Thibouville, a man who had lost part of his fortune and properties after betraying the King of France. The increasingly turbulent relationship between de Carrouges and Le Gris finds its key moment when Lady Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape. Only Jean seems to believe her, but despite the extreme hostility experienced after the accusation, Lady Marguerite is determined to demand justice for the horrific act perpetrated against her.
The Last Duel is the Ridley Scott’s next venture into the historical drama genre. After Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus, Robin Hood, Gladiator and, of course, The Duellists, progenitor of the film discussed in this piece, the 4-time Oscar-nominated Scott has chosen another story that could display his ability as an action director: despite the film’s unnecessarily dark cinematography, some of the war sequences in the film are breathtaking and directed with absolute mastery of the craft, with the titular duel, the last legally sanctioned duel in the history of France, being particularly impressive. Battle and action scenes serve as intervals between more traditional talky sequences: the film is structure as a three-act Rashomon-like drama, with each act representing a version of the story as told from the perspectives of the three main character at play, Jean de Carrouges for the first one, Jacques Le Gris being the focus of the second one and finally Lady Marguerite at the center of the final act. Each version will differ from the other two, even if ever so slightly, and part of the interest is about those differences.
One of the big problems with this ambitious structuring of the film is that not all characters have the same weight: the first act about Jean de Carrouges focuses on his relationship with Le Gris, but while Matt Damon gives his all, he frankly isn’t believable as a 14th century French knight, coming off as a flat imitation and making his act rather uninteresting, only generating attention right near the end, when Lady Marguerite, in what is essentially a cameo in the first part, reveals to him the atrocious act she has suffered. Things change with the second and third acts, when Jean is upstaged by Jacques and Marguerite and the terrifying dynamic that involves them. The story takes a darker turn, and both Adam Driver and Jodie Comer shine in their roles: Driver plays Le Gris as a tempting, winking devil, scarily duplicitous, fascinating and charming, while Comer gives Lady Marguerite a profound heroic dignity, sternly defending the truth from the accusations of the people around her. Driver and Comer offer the movie the perfect set-up for the final duel.
The trial-by-combat that ends the film is the real problem in the script: written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener (who was hired to write the third act from a female perspective), the screenplay never finds its balance, and does little justice to the character of Lady Marguerite. Crushed between the story of two friends turned foes, Lady Marguerite seems reduced to a plot ploy, a narrative device used to give closure to Jean de Carrouges in his quest to restore his and his wife’s honor by fighting Le Gris to the death. From this perspective, the story at the center of The Last Duel becomes not of justice but of revenge, diminishing the impact of Jodie Comer’s performance as Lady Marguerite. Comer does, in fact, have less screen time than the two conflicting men, accentuating the impression that it’s not really her story that the film is trying to tell.
Despite a muscular direction by Ridley Scott and two valid performances at its core, The Last Duel can’t escape its own trap and leaves a bit of an sour aftertaste.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. 20th Century Studios will release The Last Duel exclusively in theaters on October 15, 2021.