Monday, November 15, 2021

The Last Duel: A Review


When I went to Arizona earlier this year, one thing I did was go to Medieval Times. I did enjoy this romp through ye olden days, and despite some good efforts by those in front and behind the camera I found Medieval Times more entertaining than The Last Duel.

Told in three versions, we learn the story of Marguerite de Carrouge (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouge (Matt Damon). Chapter One is his story: a noble French warrior, financially strapped, married the wealthy Marguerite. A dispute over territory that may or may not be part of her dowry causes a rift between himself and his frenemy, Jacques de Gris (Adam Driver). While there is a reconciliation, a charge of rape by de Gris against Marguerite causes them to face off in a duel to the death.

Chapter Two is in many ways similar to Jean's story except it is Jacques' story. Essentially, Jacques, driven by unbridled lust, does rape Marguerite, but his powerful lord Pierre d'Alencon (Ben Affleck) offers some protection. However, as Jacques has appeal to the King himself, and Jean's challenge is accepted by all, the duel takes place.

Chapter Three (or "The Truth) is Marguerite's story. Jean, so far, has failed to impregnate his wife. However, now she is pregnant, but whether it is Jean or Jacques, and whether it is due to a rape or a willing fling, is the source of much debate, shame and scandal. If Jean is killed in the duel, she too will be killed as an adulteress since God will decide the winner. With lives hanging in the balance, who will survive?

The Last Duel is pretty much a slog, due in large part to screenwriters Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofcener's very, very, very serious manner with their adaptation of Eric Jager's nonfiction book. By jumping straight into the combat and sometimes repeating the same information one almost throws their hands in despair at the thought of having to see scenes repeated almost verbatim.

There is, for example, something almost sadistic in seeing Marguerite raped twice if not three times (definitely at Chapters Two and Three, can't recall in Chapter One). The Last Duel agrees in all three versions that Jacques does rape Marguerite, so one wonders if perhaps a more linear story versus this Rashomon-like manner would have worked better.

The Kurosawa film is the clear inspiration for The Last Duel with its variations on the story. However, as the three chapters mostly if not wholly agree on elements, why have us sit through the same battle twice? This is especially the case given that the battle Jean and Jacques fought alongside each other has brutal beheadings. I don't know why one would want to see something like that twice.

As a side note, certain scenes in Chapter One play as if they were ripped off from Gladiator's German battle opening. Curiously, I think a lot of The Last Duel was cribbing from Gladiator with diminishing returns. 

Director Ridley Scott does himself no favors in how he directed the actors. There is not a bit of life in any of them. I figure their performances were meant to match the somber, serious nature The Last Duel took. However, in every actors' manner, none of these real-life figures came across as real. Instead, they came across as emotionaless waxworks capable of movement but hollow.

Each performance was bad, but only in degrees of badness. I have never believed Ben Affleck could act, and The Last Duel does not change my view. It's a curiosity or a blessing that Affleck stays mostly in Chapter Two given how camp and cartoonish he was. Damon made his Jean into perhaps the biggest warrior wimp in history, someone who is simultaneously clueless and boring. Driver to his credit I think did his best, but the script was beyond anything even he could do.

Comer was the most interesting of the actors, and if The Last Duel had focused on her versus trying to make the men around her remotely interesting we might have had a movie. 

As a side note, yes the various hairstyles were in turns distracting and comical.

The Last Duel underscores its self-importance and seriousness with its cinematography. If I am to believe the film, the sun literally never shines in France. The film is dominated by cloudy greys and heavy snows, with little light coming through. 

The Last Duel makes no case as to why any of us should care about anything going on. The characters were boring, the situation dull despite the prospect of innocents being killed, and the overall setting oppressively gloomy. "He's no f---ing fun," Pierre quips about Jean. The same could be said about the movie. Granted, a film revolving around violence against women should not be fun. However, it also does not have to be so lifeless. 


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