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Last Duel, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Outrage"
2 stars

If I had to make a list of the most accomplished filmmakers of the last half-century or so, Ridley Scott’s name would definitely hold a place of prominence. A director who generally favors bold and ambitious works and who has generally strived to avoid repeating himself, even when doing sequels to his own films, he has amassed a list of credits that is practically bursting with the kind of critical and commercial successes that most of his peers rarely attain even once in their careers—“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Legend,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Hannibal,” the full-length version of “Kingdom of Heaven,” “American Gangster,” the “Alien” sequels “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” and “All the Money in the World” immediately leap to mind. At the same time, he has also shown himself over the years to be more than capable of turning out subpar junk as well when working with material that is either subpar or that he just does not seem to connect with on some fundamental level. When he does one of these lesser items—“A Good Year,” “Robin Hood,” “Exodus,” to name a few, the results feel as if they hurt a little more than the usual run-of-the-mill stinker because we know that Scott is capable of so much more. Unfortunately, his latest effort, “The Last Duel,” is not one that is going to go down as one of his great works. A handsomely mounted but dramatically inert work, it offers up a story from the pages of history that is nevertheless meant to resonate with those paying attention to current events but fails to do anything especially interesting with it over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour running time.

The period is 14th-century France and centers on the circumstances leading up to the country’s last legally sanctioned duel, a battle to the death between former friends-turned-bitter-rivals Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) that is the end result of a court case that begins when the former’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses the latter of raping her. After having fought together in battle, the two have a bitter falling out when Jacques finds favor with dissolute nobleman Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck. . . yes, Ben Affleck) and is subsequently rewarded with a captaincy that de Carrouges believed was to be his and a choice parcel of land that was supposed to be part of Marguerite’s dowry but which was sold off by her father in order to pay his mounting debts. Already seething with resentment towards, Le Gris, de Carrouges is driven completely over the edge when he returns from a trip to collect money he was owed and Marguerite confesses that Le Gris sexually assaulted her while he was away, a charge that Le Gris denies. The court case that develops eventually culminates in the duel, whose result will serve as the verdict for the trial and then some—if Jean loses, this legally means that Marguerite was lying regarding her accusation and will herself be burned alive as punishment.

The conceit of the film is that the story is recounted three different times, each one inevitably reflecting the particular perspective of the person telling it and each penned by a different screenwriter. The first take, by Damon, centers on de Carrouges and depicts him as a fine and noble man who has been treated unfairly by the Le Gris/d’Alencon allegiance but is willing to put bygones aside for the sake of his beautiful wife until she is attacked and he is willing to risk sacrificing his own life in the name of her precious honor. The second, written by Affleck, follows Le Gris (whom Affleck was supposed to play at one point) and shows him as a brilliant, dashing and erudite rising star of the court who does what he can for his comparatively clueless friend but cannot believe either that a creature as divine as Marguerite could possibly ever be happy with such a dolt for a husband or that she doesn’t actually mean it when she says “Non” at the time of the fateful incident between them.

The third is written by Nicole Holofcener and tells things from Marguerite’s point-of-view, which the film positions as being the true accounting of what happened. This time around, the two guys come across much worse than in their own self-serving recollections—Jean is depicted more as a largely boorish hothead who causes more trouble for himself than anyone else and Jacques is seen as a superficially attractive sort who is not nearly as charming or erudite as he vaingloriously believes himself to be. Meanwhile, Marguerite is proving herself to be a truly progressive type who is shocked by the grotesque ways that women of the time are treated by an oppressively patriarchal society that seems determined to refuse her a voice in anything and who is hammered in court by people determined to prove that she “enjoyed” her sexual assault, thereby proving that she wasn’t really raped after all.

From a physical standpoint, “The Last Duel” is undeniably impressive throughout. Working with cinematographer Darisz Wolski, Scott establishes an atmosphere as stark, cold and brutal as the story he is recounting and while the results are not precisely what one might consider to be “beautiful,” they are undeniably striking and severe in ways that help to further underscore the narrative(s). Likewise, the fight scenes—ranging from huge battles to the final brawl between Jean and Jacques that begins with them astride their horses in the noblest of manners and ends with each of them bloodied and brutalized—have been assembled by editor Claire Simpson to highlight the sheer agony of combat rather than anything smacking of true heroism or nobility. Coming from Scott, whose first feature was, you will recall, “The Duelists,” this might not seem like that big of a surprise but coming at a time when most cinematic spectacles resemble indifferently constructed cut scenes from video games than anything else, it is nice to see scenes like this executed by someone who truly knows what they want to accomplish and possesses the myriad technical skills needed to pull it off.

It is from a dramatic standpoint that the film initially founders and soon falls apart completely. Structurally, the film owes an obvious debt of inspiration to Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon, which also used extended flashbacks involving different perspectives to examine the particulars of another case involving rape. However, while Kurosawa used that particular approach in order to bring a sense of ambiguity to the material by presenting contrasting viewpoints to the events but never setting on a particular one as being the absolute truth. (At least, that is how I remember it.) Here, the film approximates the broad outlines of that framework but disappointingly doesn’t really go much further than that. Although certain details change depending on who is doing the recounting, the various takes on the story at hand are all more or less the same—even the Le Gris-centered segment, in which one would assume that he is presenting himself in the most favorable light imaginable, offers up an account of the crime at the center of the story that is presented pretty unambiguously as a rape. (There is a kernel of an idea there—the horrifying notion that Jacques is operating under the delusion that rape is somehow okay and not in any way a crime as long as it is someone as suave as him doing it—but the film doesn’t really do anything with it.) Instead of watching several divergent takes on the same basic story, it instead more or less presents the same story three times and varies only slightly in how each one gets from Point A to dueling to the death. The last section is especially disappointing because while Holofcener does come up with a few inspired moments here and there, it devolves into a medieval-era #METOO narrative that hits audiences over the head so hard as it points out how things have not changed that greatly for women in the subsequent centuries that even those in the audience who share those beliefs will find themselves growing impatient after a while.

Of course, none of this proves to matter too much because even if the screenplay had somehow managed to fix all of these problems and come across as a rare example of an adult-oriented film where the dramatic points hit as hard as the blows during the battle sequences, it still would have found itself struggling against some of the more questionable casting choices to come along in a while. Look, all of the main actors are excellent performers but, with the sole exception of Comer, who gets by because of the long-standing cinematic tradition that pretty much everyone in a period film along these lines speaks in at least a semi-British accent, regardless of where their characters are actually supposed to be from, not one of them is remotely plausible as an inhabitant of medieval-era France. Comer. The others, all of whom are excellent actors, never manage to convince us that we are seeing anything other than a group of oddly coiffed and uncomfortably clad movie stars who stick out like sore thumbs amidst their surroundings. Oddly, it is Affleck who turns in the best performance because he is the one who seems to recognize the incongruity of his appearing in something like this and leans into it with a cheerfully over-the-top turn that may not be historically accurate in the slightest but which is so knowingly goofy throughout that he does manage to bring a jolt of life to the proceedings whenever he is on screen.

And yet, considering that the film is theoretically about the ways in which women have had their rights and liberties subjugated in ways that has continued on in one form or anther throughout the centuries, the fact that the most piggish and most overtly comedic character in the otherwise deadly serious story should help suggest just how badly “The Last Duel” stumbles in the end. Although he more than pulls off the complicated physical aspects of the film’s production, Scott can’t do the same for the more dramatic aspects and considering the seriousness of the issues it tries to raise, the results are very disappointing. Of course, Scott is also famous for endlessly tinkering with many his films after their initial releases—most famously with “Blade Runner” and perhaps most significantly with “Kingdom of Heaven,” which felt like a failed epic in its original theatrical cut but which transformed into a surprisingly powerful and genuinely epic drama in its longer version. Trust me, no amount of potential reediting or lengthening could possibly have a similar result here, unless they were accompanied by rewriting and recasting as well.

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originally posted: 10/14/21 23:19:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2021 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  15-Oct-2021 (R)
  DVD: 14-Dec-2021



Directed by
  Ridley Scott

Written by
  Matt Damon
  Ben Affleck

  Matt Damon
  Ben Affleck
  Adam Driver
  Jodie Comer
  Harriet Walter
  Nathaniel Parker

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