In ‘The Last Duel,’ believe all medieval women
Cock-eyed chivalry among male chauvinists gives The Last Duel its toxic-masculinity timelessness, but the ravishment at its heart is what reduces this 14th century tragedy into a Medieval #MeToo message movie that’s just a couple years behind our times. “Deny, deny, deny, at all times, to all men,” says Count Pierre (Ben Affleck) to rapist Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), as though he’s channeling Donald Trump on a Roy Cohn bender. The muscular costume drama, best when it’s full of rattling armor and butchering battle scenes, is a male-libido mea culpa flex.
THE LAST DUEL★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Running time: 152 mins
Its Rashomon-style triptych of slightly alternate POV narratives threatens to make this preachy tale a smothering examination of self-serious intentions. But a handful of zippy deadpan dialogue, along with some sly toss-off reaction shots, goose the proceedings with camp-adjacent delights. “Come in! Take your pants off,” shouts the Count to Le Gris, as naked nubiles rub and writhe in the background. Once you realize Le Gris is part of the louche aristocrat’s pussy posse, the film’s stiff-collared intentions get a little more frisky. So, too, does Affleck, who calls Damon “no fucking fun” and palpably savors being a dim-bulb himbo. And his rapport with Driver is priceless. “Take your fucking pants off!”
Even better: those two Oscar-winning Bostonian bros, together again in a film they co-wrote for the first time since Good Will Hunting, have the kind of hairdos that their Southie soulmates would jeer. One’s got a grizzled mullet and the other one’s sporting a bottle-blond coif with matching goatee. How ’bout them apples?
Squire Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a brave but uncouth French soldier for King Charles VI, is scarred and humorless, nearly broke due to Black-Plague-related labor shortages. He’s the kind of dud lover who rolls off his trophy wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and offers post-coital grunts like “I trust your little death was a productive and memorable one.” Her dowry was sizable, but the fickle Count annexed a small chunk of it on a whim.
Carrouges feels dishonored, especially since the Count gifted it to Le Gris, his former comrade in arms and now frenemy. Then Le Gris misreads the room when he falls for Marguerite and thinks the attraction is mutual. It isn’t, but that doesn’t stop horndog Le Gris from forcing himself on her. “He has feloniously and carnally taken my wife,” rages Carrouges to the King, then throws down his glove and demands a duel to the death.
Ergo the title, which refers to the final royally sanctioned head-to-head fight of its kind. The two men are ostensibly brawling over Marguerite’s honor, but their jousting and swordplay are really much more a grudge match between two stubborn men. All this wouldn’t have happened if Marguerite had followed supine female decorum and just kept her mouth shut about the sexual assault. But, being smart, cultured, accomplished and morally grounded, she spoke up about the attack. Which the men were more than happy to exploit for their own ego-seeped ends.
And that’s what the film torturously spends more than two hours repeating: the hot flash revelation that the Middle Ages were not an opportune time for women. Because the film’s structure retells the story through the perspective of three characters—“The Truth,” a card announces, according to Carrouges, Le Gris, and Marguerite—we watch the same scenes with slight variations in tone and dialogue. It’s an intriguing, though familiar, storytelling exercise in personal bias and the ways in which people’s emotional experiences color their realities. But then the film’s third chapter is Marguerite’s version, and the words “The Truth” linger just long enough to insist that hers is the only one that matters. Pity the film wasn’t bold enough to admit, even when its injustice is undeniable, that all sides, in their own way, are just as subjective.