Ridley Scott’s latest film “The Last Duel” is a gritty period drama film equipped with some modern perspective to be appreciated. Often reminiscent of several notable films ranging from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to Scott’s debut feature film “The Duelists” (1977), the movie observes many grim, dirty, and violent aspects of its period background with detached amusement, and it is also interesting to observe how it gradually reveals its relevant gender issues as shifting from one viewpoint to another along the story.
After the opening scene set in Paris, 1386, the first part of the movie subsequently moves back to when a soldier named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) served for King Charles VI of France in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War around 20 years ago. Although he is rather reckless to say the least, de Carrouges has shown considerable bravery as battling against British soldiers along with his fellow French soldiers, and he comes to befriend a minor squire named Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) shortly after Le Gris happens to save de Carrouges’s life during their latest battle in Limoges.
As they fight together during next several battles, the friendship between de Carrouges and Le Gris becomes more solidified, but then there comes a change of luck which ultimately leads to lots of hostility between them. As beginning to work under Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), Le Gris comes to rise above many other local noble figures including de Carrouges, but de Carrouges begins to go down without much fortune for him. After losing his first wife and their son due to an unfortunate plague, he marries the only daughter of a rich but disreputable nobleman mainly for securing his family’s financial status, but, alas, he only finds himself denied of not only a considerable part of his bride’s but also his family castle just because Count d’Alençon does not like him that much, and he is certainly furious to learn that Le Gris is allowed to get both of them instead under Count d’Alençon’s order.
Anyway, as time goes by, those old bad feelings between de Carrouges and Le Gris seem to be decreased to some degree, but then something quite serious happens. When de Carrouges comes back from Paris on one day of early 1386, he notices his wife not looking that well, and she eventually reveals to him that she was raped by Le Gris while everyone else in their residence happened to be absent. Understandably infuriated, de Carrouges soon tries to do anything for getting the justice for his wife, but there are not many options from the beginning mainly due to Le Gris’s powerful protector, and that is how he comes to have a duel of fate with Le Gris as shown from the opening scene.
During its second part, the movie moves onto Le Gris’ viewpoint, and that is where the seemingly simple narrative of the first half begins to become more complex. From Le Gris’ viewpoint, de Carrouges is more pathetic compared to how he is depicted in the first half, and there is a rather amusing scene where he cannot help but explode with his petty anger toward Le Gris right in front of Le Gris and many other noblemen including Count d’Alençon, who naturally comes to dislike de Carrouges more than before.
As getting more favor from Count d’Alençon, Le Gris get himself involved with many different women unless he is not handling his lord’s financial matters, but then he comes to pay attention to de Carrouge’s wife. Just because she seems to be attracted to him during their first encounter, he becomes more obsessed with her as days go by, and that is how he comes to pay a sudden visit to de Carrouge’s residence when everyone else besides Marguerite happens to be conveniently absent.
What follows next is disturbing to say the least, but the movie later shows this moment again via the viewpoint of Marguerite, which becomes the center of the third part of the movie. What happens between her and Le Gris is pretty much same in both versions (Yes, he did rape her), but her version is more painful and harrowing to watch as the movie focuses more on her terror and humiliation during this horrendous moment.
This third part, which is written by Nicole Holofcener (The first two parts are written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, by the way), also pays a lot of attention to how unhappy Marguerite has actually been in her married life. While she finds some happiness and satisfaction in handling their financial matters, her husband, who is much more callous and pathetic compared to how he is depicted in the two previous parts, shows no attention or affection to her at all, and he still regards her as nothing but a walking property even after she tearfully reveals to him how she was raped by Le Gris.
Despite its rather long running time (153 minutes), the movie, which is based on Eric Jager’s book “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France”, fluidly flows from one narrative point to another under Scott’s competent direction. We surely get several brutal battle scenes as expected, and then we are ultimately served with the very violent finale as promised to us from the beginning, but Scott never overlooks the human dimensions of the story especially during the third part of the film, so we brace ourselves for what will eventually happen among its three main characters, though we only come to care more about one of them as a matter of fact.
It surely helps that the four main cast members are all engaging in each own way. While Matt Damon and Adam Driver dutifully antagonize with each other throughout the film, Jodie Comer, who shows her relatively more serious side compared to her recent lightweight turn in “Free Guy” (2021), is simply terrific in her deftly modulated performance, and I sincerely hope that we will see more of her considerable talent in the future. In case of Ben Affleck, he gives his most hilarious performance since his brash comic supporting turn in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), and you can clearly sense that he is enjoying chewing his every second on the screen.
In conclusion, “The Last Duel” is a well-made genre piece which somehow balances itself well between dark brutality and thoughtful sensitivity. Although it is not one of his best films in my humble opinion, Scott, who will soon have his 84th birthday, reminds us again that he is still a master filmmaker who has steadily entertained us during last several decades, and that is enough for me for now.