Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Last Duel provides a thoughtful and appropriately grim historical epic


CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape ahead

As The Last Duel begins, the titular event is underway. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are suiting up in their armor, preparing for a duel that will end up being the last legal duel in the history of France. All of this is over an accusation from Carrouges wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), that Le Gris raped her. With Le Gris maintaining his innocence by proclaiming their intercourse was consensual, Jean de Carrouges has opted for a physical way of resolving this conflict. The victor of this skirmish is uncertain, but the fight has already been lost. With Marguerite de Carrouges voice put to the sidelines, it's obvious there can be no proper outcome in this duel.

After establishing the existence of this fight, The Last Duel backtracks several decades to kick off its unique narrative structure. In a homage to Rashamon and the Garfield and Friends episode Twice Told Tale, The Last Duel splits its story across three perspectives, each with their own story to tell. The first of these is Sir Jean de Carrouges, which conveys how this man see's himself as a constant victim of forces more powerful than himself. Then there's Jacques Le Gris, a figure who see's himself as a considerate soul and, when it comes to Marguerite de Carrouges, a romantic. And then there's Marguerite de Carrouges, the person whose perspective depicted as being the truth itself. She deals with actual struggles while her husband and Le Gris grapple with issues and conspiracies largely confined just to their mind.

The best part of the ambitious screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon is how it manages to juggle a trio of disparate perspectives on one major event without turning The Last Duel into a repetitive slog. Only one critical scene is replayed in all three stories and only a handful of other scenes are repeated in just two of the stories. Otherwise, The Last Duel is content to use this style of storytelling to peel back the curtain and reveal wholly new moments rather than just rehashing what we've already seen. It's a small but important detail that, among its other virtues, slyly suggests what the two male protaganists keep out of their recollections of the past. 

Surprisingly smart small aspects like that abound in The Last Duel, including in how director Ridley Scott subtly differentiates the different perspectives through visual flourishes. Jacques Le Gris, for example, thinks of himself as a heroic figure of legend, so of course his "truth" depicts him on the battlefield slicing open people in slow-motion like he's in a Zack Snyder movie. Meanwhile, Sir Jean de Carrouges, a man with a frank demenaor, is depicted just brutalizing his opponents in the mud, with camerawork that's matter-of-fact in how it captures this grisliness. Meanwhile, Scott employs tight close-up's when filming Marguerite de Carrouges to linger on the figure these two men largely ignore in their conversations.

The handling of the heavy topic of sexual assault also benefits from the considerate nature of The Last Duel. In particularly, the story smartly doesn't ignore how insutitonal forces help normalize this behavior and ensure consequences for it are minimal. In one of the most haunting moments of the entire film, Le Gris is once told that he should go to a clergy for forgiveness since they have extensive experience with sexual assault and making it just go away. It's an eerie moment that, of course, cna't help but resonate in the modern world. Props to The Last Duel for making something that's clearly responding to an increased 21st-century awareness of the experiences sexual assault survivors without disrupting the serious period-era aesthetic it's striving for.

The assured direction and detailed writing are accompanied by a strong collection of performances, with Jodie Comer being the standout with her gift for conveying so much raw power even when she's just lurking in the background. It's also interesting to see Matt Damon subvert his typical movie star persona by playing a character whose default facial expression makes him look like a pouty five-year-old while Adam Driver is extremely effective capturing how the most dangerous people can also be the ones who put on the most external seemingly harmless charms. Bonus points for Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d'Alençon in a performance that's surprisingly humorous ("Take your pants off!" is an amusing greeting his character gives Le Gris at one point) while also carrying an eerie quality in how this immature man-child has so much political power.

The Last Duel has its share of drawbacks, namely a runtime that could've been trimmed, an overdose of blue color grading, and an epilogue that's too tidy. For the most part, though, it works shockingly well as a historical epic that places an emphasis on the absurdity and tragedy of the past (which reverberates into the present) rather than its grandeur. Ridley Scott has certainly delivered some duds in the 21st-century, anyone whose seen Exodus: Gods and Kings could tell you that firsthand. The Last Duel, on the other hand, is one of his stronger modern efforts as well as a signal that Holofcener doesn't lose her gifts as a writer when she works outside of grounded drama/comedies set in the modern world. I never would have thought of pairing these two artists up, but they turn out to be a great match for this weighty material.

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