The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s latest effort, has much to like. The cinematography is very strong. The focus on the legal norms of the day, including the loophole of sorts exploited to arrive at the duel itself, is highly interesting. The action scenes are excellent. In particular, the titular duel is so well-choreographed that I actually wasn’t entirely sure who was going to win at one point.
The problem was that, by that time, I barely cared.
The Last Duel has a structure that will be familiar to anyone who grew up with 1980s television.
The story comes in three “chapters,” each of which represent the respective point of view of the three main characters, played by Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer—in that order. Now, as anyone who experienced that 80s TV trope can tell you, the whole point of this form of storytelling is to show that each person has a slightly different perspective on the same events (and also to give a break to writers who had to crank out 22 episodes’ worth of “WHATCHOOTALKINBOUTWILLIS?” jokes).
This technique can be used to highlight the more humorous personality traits of the characters, each of whom normally makes himself the singular hero of the same story. In terms of drama—and this is key—it can be used to show nuanced versions of the same event to get the audience to try to decide what objective reality might be.
Often, that reality can mean some mid-point among all of the versions. Or, the creator might leave it to the audience to debate and decide which is the actual “correct” story is, perhaps picking up on consistent threads in the various versions to separate fact from embellishment. This can be a captivating storytelling device when used correctly.
That isn’t what happens in The Last Duel.
Its downfall is that it betrays the entire reason for that device halfway through the film. And that’s why I’m going to write so much about this movie. Because it’s frustrating to think of how good this movie could have been. How close it was to being great.
If this were just a run-of-the-mill bad movie (The Suicide Squad), or even a run-of-the-mill good movie (A Quiet Place: Part II), I wouldn’t feel the need to write about it. But, as soon as I got home from The Last Duel, I knew that I had to do so.
During the first chapter, we get most of the exposition and backstory. This chapter constitutes the most interesting part of the film. In short, Damon’s Jean portrays himself—largely accurately, but with some selective omissions—as a heroic solider and a repeated victim of local politics.
So far, so great. By the end of this chapter, I was ready to recommend this film wholeheartedly. Adam Driver’s Jacques begins his chapter just as strongly, recounting many of the same events, but including some missing pieces that show that Jean is more naïve and hard-headed than Jean’s story led us to believe. Again, this is all great.
The fatal flaw of the film reveals itself at the end of Jacques’ chapter, however.
The movie’s pivotal event is an alleged rape committed by Jacques against Jean’s wife, Marguerite (Comer). Here’s the problem: Even in Jacques’ own version of events, it is very clear that what he did was, in fact, rape.
For the structure of the story to work, Jacques’ story should end with much more ambiguity. At worst, there should be some plausibility to his claim—which he swears before God—that he did not commit this act. Instead, we see what is very clearly a non-consensual sexual act take place.
This scene makes no sense. Nor does it make sense that—again, even in his own version of the story—Driver’s character finishes the act in something like 30 seconds. In the rest of his tale, he portrays himself as a gifted lover who beds untold numbers of women. Yet, in this essential part of the story, he admits that he’s Quick-Draw McGraw? Ok. Sure.
But, even with this misstep, the movie might have been salvageable. There was still some room for nuance, depending on how they played the final chapter.
And they absolutely botched it.
Marguerite’s chapter commences as the others do, with “The truth, according to [character’s name]” (I might be paraphrasing, but I think that’s the right wording). However, unlike the two chapters that precede it, the words that begin Marguerite’s chapter fade, except for “The truth,” beating the audience over the head with the unmistakable message that THIS IS WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.
Not only does this decision erase one of the primary reasons for this story’s persistence for hundreds of years—debates over what the actual facts were, and whether the outcome was just—it also renders the aforementioned story structure meaningless. Pointing to one of the versions and literally TELLING the audience that THIS is the “real” version damages the appeal of the story.
It gets worse. Marguerite’s story (which is THE truth, remember) also reveals that she is obviously more courageous, wise, and intelligent than anyone else in the film. As unlikely as it may seem, she is also more knowledgeable about animal husbandry, agriculture, finances, and running an estate than her illiterate husband is, scenes of which serve no other purpose other than to pummel the audience with the message that there is only one possible protagonist in this film. Ambiguity be damned!
Honestly, I was mildly surprised that Marguerite didn’t break out of her shackles, leap down from her viewing stand, and kill both combatants herself during the duel.
But wait, there’s more. The film also cements her status as hero / angel by including an odd focus on the fact that Marguerite is clearly not experiencing orgasms when she has sex, the riffs on which made me feel like it was both strangely out-of-place for a movie set in the 1300s, as well as like something that would have been subject matter for SNL circa 1978, making it somehow simultaneously anachronistic and outdated.
What we’re left with is a story based around a duel that, when it actually arrives, features a fight-to-the-death between a delusional rapist and a selfish buffoon. And, remember, we have been explicitly told that’s who these guys are. The filmmakers have robbed the story of any room for interpretation, even though that possible ambiguity is EXACTLY WHY THIS STORY IS SO FAMOUS. By the time we reach the end, the only reason the audience should even care about the outcome of the duel at all is because there’s a last-minute revelation that Marguerite will be sentenced to a horrible death if her husband loses.
As a final whip of this particular dead horse, onscreen text at the end of the film goes out of its way to explain that Jean later died fighting in the Crusades, and that Marguerite never remarried. I was half-expecting a parenthetical “YOU GO, GIRL!” to accompany this revelation.
Oddly, the film doesn’t mention that Jean was 66 when he died (quite old for the 14th century!), nor does it mention that, after the duel, he and Marguerite went on to have two more children. Weird omission!
The Last Duel sets up as if it’s going to explore a deep, hotly debated historical ambiguity, but, instead, “solves” the question for the audience halfway through the film.
Here’s the point: if you want to do a feminist re-telling of this story from the perspective of the rape victim, do it—and do it all the way. But don’t use a type of storytelling device that only works properly if the narrative leaves open the possibility of interpretation. And certainly don’t undercut that storytelling device in the process.
The Last Duel could have been a fascinating look at a historical incident that has generated centuries of debate. It begins to go down that road, but, then, abruptly tells us what to think. There can be no debate.
And that speaks to the rather obvious off-screen reason why this movie unfolds in this way. A cursory glance at either reviews of the film (most of which are predictably favorable) or two-year-old articles about the announcement of the forthcoming production reveals the answer. Any sort of ambiguity or nuance wouldn’t have been permitted in “our current climate” (read: under the scrutiny of Very Online media people or Twitter mobs).
There was no other way to make this movie, other than as a definitive telling of a story about a rape that leaves absolutely no doubt as to what happened over 700 years ago—even though that doubt is what has made the tale so durable.
No matter. An increasingly long list of things “aren’t up for debate,” as we know. And the unmistakable-but-very-slightly-less-violent rape that we see in the middle chapter is as much ambiguity (i.e. virtually none) as a contemporary film would allow when contemplating such a topic. Even hinting that Marguerite’s perspective is anything shy of absolute, pristine truth would have subjected Damon and Affleck (who co-wrote the screenplay) to a mountain of criticism.
This is not to suggest that Marguerite was lying. Merely that, like every person, she has a perspective that is solely her own, and something less than complete and perfect. Presenting it as such robs her of her humanity in a way, elevating her to an ethereal plane.
From a storytelling perspective, these imaginary guardrails are not a positive development. In this case, given the structure of the movie, this is a far worse way to recount this tale. It also strips the duel of much of its significance. It’s a shame, too, because so many elements of the film are solid, including the performances all around.
In the end, The Last Duel is something worse than merely bad: it’s disappointing.
Pingback: Timely Movie Review: The Northman | The Axis of Ego