The Last Duel

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Matt Damon in The Last Duel.
Matt Damon in The Last Duel.
Photo: 20th Century Studios

MOVIE:

The Last Duel

WHERE TO WATCH:

Now showing in cinemas

OUR RATING:

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

In 14th century France, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a proud knight dedicated to the service of his child-king, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), when his already lowly fortunes suddenly take a turn for the worse due to the machinations of his liege, Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) and d'Alencon's most trusted squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) – the squire who happens to also be Jean's old friend and brother in arms. With tensions mounting between the old friends turned rivals, things reach a boiling point when Jean's wife, Lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), accuses Jacques of raping her, where upon Jean challenges Jacques to a duel to the death to avenge his wife's honour. Based on the true story of the last ever government-sanction duel to death in French history.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Writing together for the first time since their breakout hit Good Will Hunting, nearly twenty-five years ago (anyone else suddenly feel very, very old?), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have reunited for a film that could not possibly be more of a departure from what they've done in the past – both together and alone.

The Last Duel is obviously an easy fit for its director, Ridley Scott, who has made a name for himself on extravagant productions and elaborate world-building (though he is actually often at his best when working on a smaller scale), but there's little in the uplifting and charmingly intimate Good Will Hunting that points towards this complex examination of toxic masculinity and female (dis)empowerment in medieval France. Frankly, despite both men accruing impressive bodies of work both behind and in front of the camera, there's hasn't been much in the years since then either.

Just as well that they're hardly alone in spinning this particular tale. 

Working from Eric Jager's book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, a work of non-fiction that compiles numerous different written sources to piece together the circumstances that led to the last ever government-sanctioned duel to the death in France, the duo have also wisely enlisted the help of acclaimed writer Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me, Enough Said) to provide an invaluable female perspective on a story that may look like it's about men and their need to kill each other but soon proves to be far more about a woman's place in a man's world.

Not that it's an obvious feminist screed either, mind you. The film, which is split into three chapters, each telling the same story from the different and differing points of view of our three main characters, is obviously set in a time and place where the treatment of women was so deplorable that it makes most (though, tragically, not all) of today's garden variety misogynists look positively progressive by comparison. You would have to dig pretty far into the slime to pull out the sort of unevolved cretin who would actually believe that condemning the sexual politics of medieval France in the 21st century is, in any way, a "feminist thing".

But just because there are no obvious comparisons to be made doesn't mean that there isn't still something incredibly contemporary about the way the film explores how two men can come to wildly divergent views on events simply because of how they each view a single, solitary woman – and how she views them. The events of the Last Duel are clearly a worst-case scenario, but its underlying point still resonates.

The device of using multiple viewpoints to tell the same story does come with certain advantages, as well as disadvantages – and the film makes impressive use of the former while sometimes falling prey to the latter.

This device, made famous in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, allows us to gain greater and greater appreciation of Jean, Jacques and Marguerite as people – and of those around them too – while allowing the narrative to often buck convention or to upend audience expectations. It's easier to see something in greater depth and breadth when viewing it from multiple angles, after all. The way the film reframes the story around Marguerite even before we get to "her story" is particularly beautifully done.

The biggest pitfalls of the Rashomon Effect, though, is that, like a bad time-loop movie, it can get very repetitive, very fast. Bizarrely, The Last Duel completely avoids that particular booby trap by falling smack bang into its opposite.

Rather than the second and third "retreads" through the same story producing diminishing returns, it is the first telling that is, frankly, almost unbearable. From its grey pallet to Damon playing his usual "good guy" role but without the charm and humour that normally comes with it to its boring, paint-by-numbers story that is also very haphazardly told (it jumps from one scene to the next almost mid-sentence), it looks for all the world like Matt and Ben have horrendously failed at their job and presumably brought along Ms Holofcener just to drag her down with them for yet another bad Ridley Scott film (the dude's great, but also wildly inconsistent). 

The further I get from the film, though, the more I strongly believe that this is intentional. That the first run-through is a black and white sketch onto which the dramatic, thematic and literal colour of the remaining hour and a half is filled out.

And from that point of view, it is a genuine triumph.

Objectively, the way the film builds on that initial sketch with the bawdier, funnier Adam-Driver-driven (in a look and performance that is not far at all from Kylo Ren) second act and the chilling, brutal horrors of the final chapter with Jodie Comer coming in to handily steal the show from her co-stars - is genuinely pretty damn brilliant. Subjectively, though, that opening section is still just an unbearable slog.

And that can be a problem.

Audiences will undoubtedly have long-forgotten about the tedious first chapter well before getting to the shockingly violent, pulse-poundingly tense, titular duel at the end of the movie, but there should be huge disclaimer at the start to prevent mass walk-outs. Something along the lines of, "Please bear with us. We know it starts off horribly, but it's on purpose. It gets much better. We promise."

The Last Duel is, as it turns out, one of Ridley Scott's very best films in years. It would be a horrible pity if people never get the chance to realise this.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24