Ridley Scott is eighty-three years old. In fact, he will soon turn eighty-four. At this age, many filmmakers – at least those who remain active and haven’t thrown in the towel to spend the twilight of their lives sipping wine in Bali or writing memoirs – tend to slow down a bit, maybe direct their artistic interests towards more meditative output, like Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho for example. Alternatively, like Francis Ford Coppola who is actively trying to burn his private fortune to make Megalopolis, or Charlie Chaplin who came out of retirement in 1967 to direct A Countess of Hong Kong, they might also want to stage their one last hurrah and realize that one passion project that somehow had eluded them for decades.
Well, Ridley Scott isn’t in swansong mode at all. Instead of winding down, he seems to accelerate, as though he sensed the end was near and wanted to give the world as much as humanly possible before his candle was eventually extinguished. Thus, not only does he have two films coming out this year, but he is also busy developing four others too. And at least one of two movies coming out this year – his medieval epic The Last Duel – doesn’t seem to look as though it was made by an octogenarian. It’s sharp, brooding and provocative enough to fool you it was directed by someone at least four decades younger.
In fact, I might have to correct myself here because I don’t necessarily think The Last Duel can be successfully called an epic as its scope doesn’t quite fit the definition, even though its gravitas fits it nonetheless. Based on a book by Eric Jager and adapted by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, the film recounts the true story of Marguerite de Carrouges (played by the showstopping Jodie Comer), the wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) who was sexually assaulted by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) when her husband was away from home. Contrary to the norm of the time, Marguerite decided not to cower away in shame and sought justice for the crime she was a victim of, which led to her husband resorting to invoke the ancient law of ‘iudicius dei’, a trial by combat where Sir Jean would face off against Jacques Le Gris in a duel to the death.
What is arguably the most interesting feature of The Last Duel is the fact its central intrigue – the story of Marguerite’s ordeal and her quest to find justice at a time when women were regarded not as independent human beings but, frighteningly, as chattel – is told in a manner that many critics have described as Rashomon-esque. Hence, the narrative is conveniently split into three distinct chapters, each retelling the events from different perspective: the truth according to Jean de Carrouges, the truth according to Jacques Le Gris and the truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges. Notably, the choice for the words ‘the truth’ to linger on the screen for a few seconds longer before Marguerite’s chapter is allowed to commence is most certainly a choice aimed to underscore the film’s ambition and – implicitly – to distance itself from comparisons to Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
After all, the central idea behind Rashomon revolved around the idea of seeing conflicting accounts from all involved parties and dealing with a very distinct possibility that some of these people might be lying. This isn’t the case in here at all because each of the three chapters tells the same exact story. What changes is the perspective on things which translates to very subtle discrepancies, be it in the tone of voice, small character details and story elements inaccessible from other viewpoints by virtue of some characters not being present when certain things happened. Therefore, if I were to compare The Last Duel to any movie, I would most likely compare it to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité, a 1960 courtroom drama where a woman played by Brigitte Bardot was trialled for the murder of her boyfriend. The story unfolded in a series of flashbacks interlaced with how these facts are reinterpreted and spun by both the prosecution and defence attorneys to fit in their respective narratives and became a powerful commentary on how biases inform our perspective and – crucially – how a woman’s fate was placed in the hands of men who cared more about winning the case, establishing dominance over their rivals and how their involvement would influence the society at large… rather than getting at the titular truth and making sure justice is delivered.
Thus, The Last Duel isn’t a medieval epic but a pensive exercise in perspective that functions more as a wholesale contempt of toxic masculinity than as a monument to female empowerment, set on the periphery of a historical epic made by somebody else. As a direct consequence of this misdirection that may or may not lead some viewers they are walking into something grand, operatic and visually arresting, the movie erects a wall of inaccessibility between itself and the audience and asks them to sit tight, ingest what it has to say, parse that content and wait patiently for everything to come together staggeringly in the final act. I could perhaps understand (to a degree, mind you) the frustration germinating in the minds of the viewers as the filmmakers ask them to sit through the same story thrice over. That’s because the facts never change. Jean always loses the battle of Limoges after initiating a charge. He always falls out with the count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). He always negotiates the terms of his arranged marriage to pay off his debts. He always shoots off to war because the estate is out of money. Accordingly, Jacques always falls under Pierre’s spell. He always attempts to court Marguerite. And in both his and Marguerite’s accounts, he always ends up raping her. So, why exactly are we asked to watch these same events multiple times, including a violent sexual assault? Is it needed?
This, by the way, is a topic that has brought some notoriety to the film as a section of the critical community did not take kindly to the idea of witnessing how Jacques rapes Marguerite twice. Arguably, a case could be made that we don’t necessarily need to witness it at all and the viewer should be perfectly equipped to take Marguerite’s word for it; which immediately makes the decision to keep that gruesome scene (in both incarnations) a little bit gratuitous. However, I don’t think the reason why The Last Duel exists isn’t to protect Marguerite’s honour, but rather to condemn everybody else. This movie isn’t about relating the facts of the matter. If it was, why would we have to sit through the same events so many times? I would even go so far as to suggest that it isn’t about people lying and the viewer having to tease out the truth from conflicting accounts, which would make it decidedly Rashomon-esque. Everyone in this movie tells the truth as they see it. They wholeheartedly believe everything they say and what our job is as the audience is to understand the difference in perspective and see how little it takes for Marguerite’s horrific ordeal to go ignored and for the truth to end up warped and misshapen.
Once we are allowed to witness all three accounts of what happened and how these facts were hijacked by other people who appropriated Marguerite’s victimhood and essentially evolved it into their own martyrdom, we shall see The Last Duel for what it is – a powerful examination of womanhood and how effortlessly a man’s lens can skew its oftentimes tragic nuance. This is when we should realize the filmmakers didn’t have us sit through a rape scene twice. They had us realize that the bulk of sexual interactions any woman has in this movie – not only Marguerite – is tantamount to assault. We see Jean negotiating his marriage to Marguerite without even asking her opinion on it. She just stands in the corner readying herself to accept her fate. We understand her paralyzing fear ahead of her wedding night, her guilt for not being able to conceive and the disgusting brutality of how her ‘wifely duties’ are dispensed with. What is more, we do see other women have sex, too and none of it is entirely consensual. We see Jacques mount who we can only assume is a prostitute while she is pinned and held down by other women participating in the act. We see Pierre invite Jacques to partake in an orgy with him without consulting any women involved in this and I can assure you most viewers probably won’t even think about it while it is first unfolding because they are too busy remembering names, understanding motivations and looking for subtle details differing between these three accounts that would add to the bigger picture the movie was painting.
Naturally, these differences are there for us to find and the picture is there as well, but it’s not the whole story. Cleverly enough, The Last Duel is engineered not to be fully understood until after the credits have rolled. Only when you have the complete picture in front of you, you are able to see what the filmmakers are doing and what the power of this picture truly is. After you sit through the titular climactic duel (which by the way serves as a framing device for the entire narrative as well), you are allowed to learn how to fully interpret these small differences in perspective the filmmakers exposed you to. And this is where you also understand why the film looks the way it looks, especially if all throughout its duration you’ve been asking yourself why every scene seems so dimly lit. Is it to preserve period accuracy? Maybe. But then again, it would be a bit of a departure from the way Ridley Scott’s films have always been lit, as he was never a stickler for this level of realism. The movie is underexposed on purpose to establish a plane of symmetry with the underexposed horror of all women who were treated as property throughout essentially the bulk of human history and whose tragic existence was often appropriated by men who would callously go as far as to claim that a violent rape was somehow a transgression perpetrated against them personally. You could say it’s a dark movie about dark times and you would be correct in doing so, but these times didn’t magically cease to exist in the fourteenth century.
Once more, The Last Duel isn’t a medieval epic you get to distance yourself from thanks to the veneer of the period and the temporal separation between you and whatever historical events this movie was attempting to recount. It is a modern movie disguised as an epic to trick you into thinking you’re watching something else until it’s too late for you to escape. The Last Duel is a pot of water slowly reaching its boiling point and the viewer is the frog. It’s a movie from which you are meant to emerge scarred and unsettled because the ideas it deals with are still in circulation today. Many men still treat women as objects. Many women are still continually victimized. And if it takes a movie directed by an octogenarian with Matt Damon and Adam Driver in medieval armour to get this point across, then so be it.
To pull off a movie this complex, provocative and timely at Ridley Scott’s age is nothing short of a grand accomplishment. The Last Duel is admittedly oppressive at times, and it is bound to ruffle a few feathers. But that’s great. This is what it’s supposed to do. It’ll lure you into its world with a promise of a grand spectacle, keep you ensconced and marinaded in its setting and then it will teach you a lesson about how little it takes for the truth to be weaponized and for the victims of violent crimes to be either side-lined or sacrificed. It’ll bludgeon you with its dense tone, horrific imagery and relentlessness of its messaging hiding beneath lush production design and powerful performances from its entire cast. It’s a great movie with a great many things to say, made by great filmmakers.
I am fully aware how picture-prefect it would have been for Sir Ridley Scott to retire after this movie, thus book-ending his entire career with The Duellists on one side and The Last Duel on the other. But seeing how much artistic ‘cran’ he has at his age, I can only hope he will preside over a whole lot more duels in the future.