Peel the Onion | 'The Last Duel' Review (Part I)
Male Egos Drive Feminist Revenge Saga in Medieval France
The Woman in Black
I went to see Sir Ridley Scott's latest movie, The Last Duel, alone with no one else. The cinema was empty. I knew it would be because the clerk said so—finally, Howard Hughesing in a private cinema like a boss. I was excited. A cinema unburdened by surplus CO₂ emitters is cause for celebration. It's fun, peaceful. You just sit there small against the dancing light, Howard Hughesing.
Over the years, Scott, now 84, has made more than a handful of classic period films, whether set in medieval times or the retro-future. But despite his ability to genre-hop, consistent brilliance has often given way to a wild inconsistency. Film production values are guaranteed. But for every classic, we always get forgettably flaccid efforts like Robin Hood or an Exodus: Gods and Kings. The Tyneside-born director's films are an almost 2:1 lucky dip ratio. But no matter what, you're always hoping for a Gladiator type of experience whenever he steps back into the swordplay genre. (Interestingly, The Last Duel shares a similar name and theme of the Tyneside-born director's first feature, British historical drama, The Duellists, which won Best Debut Film at Cannes in 1977.)
From the trailer, The Last Duel promises to be an action drama at the highest level with an all-star cast of Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck. You rarely get releases like this anymore — epic action movies with hard-sell topics still relevant today — i.e., depicting #MeToo in a historical context of rape and justice in medieval France. Perhaps that's why I was sitting alone in the dark.
The movie opens on a freezing December day in 1386, descending on an old monastery in Paris. Stone cold, grey skies fill the screen, setting the predominant color palette for the next 2.5-hours. Thousands await anxiously, gathered to witness two knights fight to the death. Equipped with a lance, sword, and dagger, both men gear up to fight for, not the beautiful young noblewoman dressed in black standing on a raised platform, but for their pride of honor, for such scandalous rumors are enough to ruin all involved. The pseudo-religious theory here, sanctioned by the King, is that God will choose the righteous winner. Within the first four minutes of the movie, we know the climax and what's at stake; but we don't yet know how it all came to pass and who will win.
Watch the prologue here:
THE LAST DUEL - First 4 Minutes Opening Scene (2021)
The film then enters a Rashomon-like retelling of prior events, which means we see the same scenes but from the perspective of each of the main characters. With the plot effectively revealed in the prologue, we now embark on the first "The truth, according to" chapters, the first of which is Damon's Jean de Carrouges — husband to Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) and ex-friend-now-nemesis Jacques Le Gris (Driver). It's a clever way to divide the narrative into three-points-of-view storytelling written by Nicole Holofcener for Marguerite's story and Good Will Hunting Oscar-winning team Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for the male leads.
As Carrouges — think Walmart Thanos with glorious 80s ice hockey mullet — Damon is a stocky, battle-scarred illiterate from the French nobility. His fortunes at court are waning due to the bluntness of his statecraft, which is winning him no friends. Though a respected warrior, Carrouges is uncouth and insensitive, especially to his second wife, the young out of his league Lady Marguerite. We meet Carrouges from his retelling as he leads friend and squire Jacques Le Gris in the Battle of Limoges, against English troops, in 1370. Carrouges saves the debonair Le Gris in a quick turn of events, who pauses to thank him mid-sword swing.
The same scene occurs at the beginning of the second chapter, "The truth according to Jacques Le Gris." Le Gris's retelling recalls that he saved Carrouges from death during the battle stampede first. However, Carrouges knew nothing of it as he was incapacitated. Driver's Le Gris is an almost natural inversion to Carrouges. Tall, dark, and mysterious, Le Gris is well-read, educated, and most of all useful to the King's libertine cousin Count Pierre d'Alençon, decadent blonde Ben Affleck. Le Gris's flowing locks and way with words make him mannip to the ladies, and boy does he know it.
Both divergent personalities lead to different outcomes in status and prosperity. Over several years from Limoges, Carrouges runs afoul of the Count, who has grown to detest him and his allegiance to the King (an inbred Charles VI played by Alex Lawther). All this chips away at their "friendship" — Carrouges sees nothing but honor in his noble actions; Le Gris is tired of defending Carrouge's actions to his paymaster, seeing nothing wrong with his double-crossing provocations.
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
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