Like Rashomon by way of Law & Order: Medieval SVU, The Last Duel should be remembered most for finally giving Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the haircuts their personalities have long demanded. Certainly, actors/writers Damon and Affleck, cowriter Nicole Holofcener, and director Ridley Scott believed themselves to be making a thoughtful exploration of systemic misogyny and a celebration of rape victims who bravely speak out. That’s not what they did, but it’s almost certainly what they believed themselves to be doing.
What they actually made is something that’s a very particular, sneaky, sinister kind of ugly. No one could watch the film and believe that anyone involved intended to denigrate victims or give a pass to violators. Be assured, The Last Duel is explicitly clear on who is right, who is wrong, and who deserves to be showed why “get medieval on your ass” remains a phrase. However, a few minor decisions and three big ones resulted in a movie at odds with its stated purpose. Oh, and although by no means a quality sample size, two different couples bailed on the flick early during my showing; one bounced within 30 minutes, the other skedaddled with only 30 minutes left.
“Based on a true story” is always the slipperiest of statements, especially when the events are a mere 850 or so years ago. In the late 1300s, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are frenemies fighting for the French king. Their accents are what can politely be called “aggressively not French.” Damon sounds like an Oklahoman doing amateur Shakespeare in the Park, while Driver deploys something nebulously transatlantic.
Carrouges and Le Gris fallout when Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), their direct ruler, begins favoring Le Gris. To be fair, Le Gris is a lot more fun at d’Alençon’s orgies, given Carrouges’ blasphemous mullet. Carrouges marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the beautiful daughter of a rich traitor. After Le Gris steals a portion of the dowry Carrouges was to receive in the marriage, it’s on like bonbons. Those are French, right? Ultimately, Le Gris winds up assaulting Marguerite out of what he claims is “love” in the same way that some people claim “All Lives Matter.”
Reader, have you noticed how much text has been used to describe the plot and how little involved Marguerite? That’s big problem number one. Dividing the film into three versions of the same events ─ first Carrouges’s, then Le Gris’s, then Marguerite’s ─ literally gives two thirds of the movie to the dudely douchebags. Doing so exposes their posturing to be as nakedly grotesque as the theory repeated in the film that women can only get pregnant if they orgasm, which can’t be true, otherwise men would have ended humanity in its infancy. It also makes this a move that quite literally overprivileges the male perspective. “Hey, everybody come look at what dickheads these guys are” is a fine and useful sentence but shouldn’t be two thirds of any film.
Big problem number two is that the rapist gets a chapter in his defense. Y’all, this is entertainment, not a courtroom. No law forces us to listen to a sexual assailant’s thoughts on consent standards. Again, the thought was likely that the depiction shatters the façade monsters like this hide behind or something. But most of us don’t want to willingly want to spend significant time hanging out with a predator. I just remembered the election results, so let me say “most people shouldn’t want to spend significant time hanging out with a predator.”
Big problem number three is showing the rape. Twice. For a really long time. And shooting the scene as told from Marguerite’s perspective with a gross focus on Le Gris’s pleasure. It’s here that the biggest overarching issue arises: What’s the fucking point?
What is the point of The Last Duel? Why is it here? The only acceptable answer is “to make Ben Affleck wear a blonde soul patch.” Other than that, it doesn’t palpably contribute in any way to literally anything. It doesn’t reveal anything not better said about rape and rape culture by people who aren’t Scott, Affleck, and Damon. It doesn’t say anything about warring hetero asshats. It doesn’t truly work to elevate Marguerite as a pioneer in rebelling against religious-centric oppression.
That last part is the worst because it could have. Marguerite’s portion was written by Holofcener, and it is so easily the best part of the film. Not only because Comer finally gets to, you know, remind people she’s the best performer involved here. It feels fresh to watch Marguerite tackle miserable medieval mundanity and enjoy it. The chapter is clever, and not in the “Did you see what we did there?” way of the two previous ones. Maybe a movie that actually followed the person who should be at the center of The Last Duel could have been something akin to the movie that the people involved thought they were making?
Grade = D
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Karen M. Peterson at Citizen Dame says “as a film that builds itself up about believing women and honoring their value, it takes every one of them for granted, putting the men at the forefront while frequently reminding us that they don’t deserve to be there.”
Patricia Puentes at Ask.com says “A lot has changed since the 14th century. Battles are no longer fought with swords. People can bathe more often. Clothes are simpler. Hairstyles are mostly less unflattering. And, some women have agency and power over their bodies, their will and their wellbeing. Yet The Last Duel makes a point about everything that hasn’t changed since then.”
Kate Sánchez at But Why Tho? says “While bold non-linear storytelling decisions can work, that isn’t the case here. But the greatest failure of The Last Duel is that it thinks it’s clever. It thinks it’s making a commentary on male power and female subjugation to it. But it doesn’t do much to comment, only present.”