If you want to know why women breathe fire when talking about the patriarchy, look no further than the life of Marguerite de Carrouges. In 1300s France she was raped by a squire, which her husband took as an opportunity to curry favor by forcing the titular last legally sanctioned duel in the country’s history. The duel would determine whether Marguerite was telling the truth about the event, because truth is best determined by two guys bashing each other’s brains in than by trusting what comes out of a woman’s mouth. It’s a chain of events so mind boggling that to tell it in a straightforward manner would be another injustice, and to the credit of everyone who conceived and made The Last Duel, the movie is anything but straightforward.
Formatted as a story from three different perspectives, we start with Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges, the brutish, insecure husband, move on to Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, the conceited squire who was once friends with Jean, and end with Jodie Comer’s Marguerite. One may groan thinking about going over the same events three different times and groan again when you see the film’s two and a half hour runtime, but the structure allows the story to build and fold on itself in ways that keep it fresh and engaging.
Luckily, none of it involves questioning Marguerite for an instant. Each person has their version of events, but the film always stays firmly on Marguerite’s side, with the versions by the two men being filtered through a judgemental lens. Eagle-eyed viewers will not only pick up on how each person recalls small but meaningful details differently but will see how the two men hide their faults and insecurities through paper thin veneers. How strange, you may note, that Jean yells for a man to hurry up and tell him what an urgent note says. Gossip later confirms that he’s illiterate, so his attempts at hiding his substandard intelligence clearly aren’t fooling anyone.
The layers of outward and inward deception only becomes more chilling as the film transitions to Le Gris, whose good looks hide a rotten core (Driver, to fit the apparent suave reputation of the real life man, is the only one spared from truly horrendous period hair).
All of which makes the film roll along with a pleasing righteousness until Marguerite finally takes center stage. Here should be the big payoff to this cockeyed take on history, an explosion of emotion fueled by injustice on a magnitude that can only be processed with the distancing spin of horror or farce. Yet the movie, up until then happily filtering historical fact through the subjective lens of a bemused teen (which is personified onscreen in the delicious appearance of Alex Lawther as King Charles VI), fails to pick up its own baton and run with it.
Yes, Marguerite’s section is righteously angry and horrifying, but the depths of a woman muzzled, used, and abused by oafish men never bursts through the period movie trappings the previous sections were so comfortable playing with. She becomes the only staid piece of an otherwise unstaid production, a stumble that feels reflective of director Ridley Scott and writers Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener (yep, one lady and three guys tell the story of egregious patriarchy) being more comfortable taking the piss out of men and than mining the rage of women.
Even with this less than glorious landing, the sheer swing of such an off-kilter structure that still lavishes in all the expensive trappings of castles, gowns, and armaments is such a novelty that it’s hard to resist admiring it. Ridley can stage brutal battles and grimy dining halls with the best of them (the bad hair, caked mud, and palpable chill makes 14th century France look like a hellhole), and all the men in the cast are committed to playing various versions of pigs. Comer, who proved the layers and range she can bring to a role as the psychopathic hitwoman in Killing Eve, surprisingly gets the least mileage out of this movie, but that’s more due to the relatively limited range of her character than any fault in her performance.
I wonder what could’ve been done with this premise had the main creators been majority women instead of men, because as well-intentioned and daring as this project proved to be, the spark of true greatness is missing. Would they have amped up the ending to show the true depth of madness Marguerite was stuck inside? Would they have pushed the subjectiveness of the Jean and Jacques sections farther to show these men as true monsters? Or would they have taken the ultimate step of disregarding these mens’ perspectives entirely, because really,, hasn’t their version of this age-old story been told a million times?
Release: available in theaters on October 15th, 2021
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
Cast: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck