“The Last Duel” is a film destined to chase away audiences for two entirely different reasons.
Audiences are either going to be offended by the subject matter or simply not drawn to a medieval story of rape.
20th Century Studios spared no expense bringing in big names to be attached to this project such Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver, and even attracted legendary Director Ridley Scott to be the man in charge behind the camera.
After numerous delays from the Disney/Fox merger to COVID 19 production issues, “The Last Duel” racked up a 100 million dollar production budget but now that it has seen the light of day, the question begs who is this for and what is this supposed to be?
Rarely does a film attempt to tell three different tales at once while being successful at it and “The Last Duel” isn’t an exception to the rule.
Set In France in 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the wife of Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) claims to have been raped by her husband’s best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver).
Enraged by this betrayal, Jean de Carrouges challenges him to trial by combat. Whichever combatant is still alive at the end of the duel will be declared the winner. If Jean de Carrouges loses the duel, his wife would be burned at the stake as punishment for her false accusation. The film is then told from three different perspectives as three different chapters. The first chapter from de Carrouges point of view, the second is from Le Gris’s, and the final chapter comes from the view of Marguerite herself.
With three different sides of the story at play, de Carrouges and Le Gris battle it out to the death in a film that is based on the true story of the last officially recognized judicial duel fought in France.
No surprise that a film’s strongest quality is in its acting with numerous A-listers attached to the project. “Last The Duel” lives on the dynamic between Matt Damon and Adam Driver. In the film, the men are in their own minds going to war over the same woman that both claim to love. As the film is told from their perspectives, we learn that this story is truly a grudge match between two stubborn knights seeking self-validation.
Under the direction of the great Ridley Scott, the film creates a world of cold brutality filled with violence and old timey politics. While the film is not an action movie, it does not hold back with some impressive stunt choreography and beautiful set pieces. A feat that is particularly impressive considering some scenes were shot multiple times with slight differences to understand the turn of events from each person’s point of view.
Matt Damon along with Ben Affleck who plays Count Pierre d’Alençon are writers of this film in the first project together since 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”. Together they do a solid job at setting the stage for events of the final act but the narrative quickly falls apart as a third perspective is inserted into the story…the victims.
When it comes to “The Last Duel”, you can pinpoint the exact creative decision that was the downfall of the movie. In the original book entitled “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France” written by Eric Jager, the story is told from the perspective of the dueling knights. In the story, the rape of de Carroughes wife is the catalyst that ignites the power struggle between former friends.
The problem arises when the filmmakers attempt to modernize the story by Hollywood’s #MeToo standards. Knowing that they couldn’t tell a story about rape without getting the woman’s point of view due to backlash from a progressive audience, screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bring in award winning writer Nicole Holofcener to craft the film’s narrative of misogyny in the story. The problem is Marguerite’s side of the story didn’t exist in the source material so Holofcener crafted one from scratch.
By doing this, the film turns Marguerite into the de facto protagonist which causes Jean de Carrouges to shift from the hero into the film’s second antagonist. While Jean Carrouges isn’t the rapist in question, he becomes the complacent figure in “rape culture”. This baffling decision to character assassinate the protagonist halfway during the film causes the ending duel, the conclusion of the movie, to mean absolutely nothing. Why? Because the story is no longer about the honor of Jean, it’s about the injustice of his wife to paint the picture that women are just as oppressed as they were in the 1300s.
This is what happens when you have someone write 2/3rds of a story and then bring someone else in to craft their own narrative in the final act. The shift in focus creates inconsistency in the tone as well as storytelling leaving audiences with elements that they enjoy and elements they simply don’t care for.
“The Last Duel” is a film with too many cooks in the kitchen that can’t create a product that properly mixes the nature of the story with the narrative of misogyny. A film that wants its cake and eats it too strips away what makes the story work and turns it into an inedible mess for everyone. A film that tries to be three separate stories at once pleasing no one.