9/10 The Last Duel doesn’t just tell a story, it builds one, layer by layer, interlocking and leaving gaps at all the perfect points, creating a pyramid worth observing as a whole, as individual layers and as connections between the layers. It’s a genius work of storytelling that captures and dramatizes not just conflicting accounts, but the conflict of those accounts.
Paris, Dec. 29, 1386- Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, who also writes and produces) meets his former squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a trial by combat. de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), has accused Le Gris of raping her that January, but Le Gris is the favored tax collector of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck, who also writes and produces), and de Carrouges knows he will be protected in court, making this duel the only way to pursue justice. However, if he loses, Marguerite will be found guilty of perjury and burnt at the stake. This was the last judicially sanctioned duel in French history, and the truth of Marguerite’s accusation remains disputed.
The Last Duel is split into three chapters, dramatizing first de Carrouges’ version of his relationship with Le Gris going back 15 years as they served together in various campaigns of the Caroline War, then Le Gris’ account of their friendship, his service with d’Alençon and his meeting of Marguerite, then finally Marguerite’s account, which is distinguished as “the truth.”
The Last Duel is worth watching because the battle scenes absolutely rule. de Carrouges was a professional soldier, and much of his time abroad is dramatized by director/producer Ridley Scott, who at 83 years old, remains the veteran director of such epics as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven – movies which have their problems, but make up for them with spectacular ball-busting medieval action. In The Last Duel, the Arri Alexa is right in the muddy thick of the action, with arrows, swords and armor whizzing past. It’s fast, brutal, exhilarating and period-accurate, or at least detailed enough to seem like it.
We all love a good perspective piece, and The Last Duel is built around perspective, richly layering onto itself as it goes on. With de Carrouges’ story as a base, Le Gris fills out a great depth of background on the politics and on embarrassing scenes de Carrouges left out of his telling. The delicate refusal to use different footage between these chapters in scenes where they intersect, only different shots, such that they tell different stories while never contradicting each other, is the film’s essence.
This intricate dance only gets better when Marguerite’s account T-bones the whole dynamic, shocking viewers with completely different versions of the scenes she shares with de Carrouges and Le Gris, especially the rape scene, which is shown twice in full detail, and that is a trigger warning. It’s tough to watch once, and then it gets worse.
The Last Duel captures the drama of a courtroom perfectly, and particularly captures the still-contemporary difficulties with prosecuting sexual assault, including making Le Gris and his protectors into understandable characters without ever making them sympathetic. In many ways, it’s the perfect story for a post-#metoo movie, one which plainly illustrates many of the difficulties survivors face – the desperation to not believe, the insulation of powerful men from legal consequences, Le Gris’ refusal to understand consent, the still-prominent notion of women as property – as both age-old and current. In fact, it feels a lot like a post-#metoo book report, and that may in be exactly what it is.
The principle creatives here, Scott, Damon and Affleck, all escaped the #metoo movement mostly unscathed, but with guilty consciences. Affleck and Damon had their careers made by Harvey Weinstein, who produced their breakout script Good Will Hunting in 1997, winning them an Oscar and elevating them to the level of more than just actors early in their careers. Affleck was subject of two groping allegations related to the movement, one of which he apologized for, and both men acknowledged they knew to varying degrees that Weinstein was not to be trusted around women. Scott replaced Kevin Spacey in his movie All the Money in the World due to Spacey’s swift #cancellationand was more recently accused of deliberately derailing Sean Young’s career, including putting her in that uncomfortable rape scene in Blade Runner, after she refused to go out with him while filming the classic.
The Last Duel applies all the correct #believeallwomen answers to the historic trial because it was made by men who needed to demonstrate they know those correct answers, and that’s not something that should be forgotten.