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Posts Tagged ‘The Last Duel’

You can say a lot of things about Ridley Scott, and I certainly have in the past, but one comparison that I never recall being made is between the veteran director and Stanley Kubrick, which is odd when you think about it. Both of them have or had the knack of making films which were (by and large) critically well-received and also financially extremely successful; both produced a number of iconic films, spread across a range of genres. And yet Kubrick’s reputation is that of a visionary artist blessed with the popular touch, while Scott’s is (merely?) as a supremely skilled maker of popular entertainment, who happens to be well-liked by the critics.

Perhaps it’s because Kubrick came from the world of art, while Scott emanated from TV, with particular reference to advertising. Kubrick’s legendary pickiness may have something to do with it, too: as director alone, Scott has knocking on for thirty films on his CV, while his ‘unrealised projects’ list for the 2010s alone has sixty items on it (Kubrick scholars take note: he is apparently developing a biopic of Napoleon). He even seems to be speeding up: my partner and I went to the cinema recently and were treated to trailers for Scott’s next two films at the same time. Then again, it’s been a few years since his last, All the Money in the World. In any case, his new film is The Last Duel.

Ridley Scott got started by… well, actually, he got started as a designer at the BBC, where (the folklore has it) he played a small part in history by managing to dodge out of the job of creating the look of the Daleks in Doctor Who. His actual filmography got underway with The Duellists in 1977, a good-looking (of course!) tale of feuding French soldiers, and so there is perhaps something of a circle being closed with the new film.

The context for the title is that the film concerns the last duel to the death given legal sanction in France; this occurred in 1386. The movie opens with the build-up to the clash, which is a big crowd-puller; the King and Queen are present, and also in the crowd is Ben Affleck, playing a Count. Hostilities are scheduled to break out between veteran warrior Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and captain in the King’s service Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver); taking a natural interest in proceedings is de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

But why are they fighting? Well, thereby hangs a tale, or perhaps three. The lazy go-to when it comes to describing The Last Duel is that it owes a debt to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, in that the central narrative is told several times, from the points of view of the main participants. This makes for clever storytelling but can easily lend itself to an awkward synopsis.

Anyway: de Carrouges and le Gris are initially friends, fighting together for the King of France (Scott retains his ability to put together crunchingly immersive and convincing battle sequences), but then their lives take different paths. De Carrouges, a stubborn, short-tempered man ill-suited to anything but swinging a weapon, finds himself struggling for money and recognition. Le Gris, a sharper and more emollient customer, finds favour with their liege-lord, the Count of Alencon (Affleck), and reaps the rewards of this, including receipt of honours that de Carrouges believes are his by right. De Carrouges, meanwhile, has married a rich man’s daughter (Comer), an intelligent and cultured young woman who naturally catches le Gris’ somewhat peripatetic eye. An encounter occurs between them while de Carrouges is away. But was it consensual, as le Gris insists, or the brutal act of rape that Marguerite declares it to be?

This being one man’s word against another during the late middle ages, the obvious recourse is to fight a duel to the death (the principle being that God will be on the side of whoever’s telling the truth). But are de Carrouges’ motivations quite as noble as he insists they are? His concern for his wife doesn’t quite extend to letting her know that if the duel goes badly for him, she will also be declared a liar and burned at the stake…

You have to look carefully to find a less-than-entirely-successful film on the Ridley Scott CV – the last one, I think, was A Good Year, back in 2006 – but it looks like The Last Duel is tanking badly in cinemas. As long-term readers will know, I’m far from an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s films, but this one does not deserve to be a failure. Have events conspired against it, with its target audience still wary of going to the cinema? Probably yes. Was it really a good idea to schedule its release against the latest outings from reliable bankers like James Bond and Michael Myers? Arguably not. But I fear that people in charge of budgets will ignore all this and simply conclude that adult-oriented drama about ‘difficult’ subjects isn’t worth investing big budgets in any more, something which would impoverish our culture still further.

Superficially at least, it’s hard to see why the film should be struggling: it looks fabulous, presenting a wholly convincing (if inevitably grotesque) mediaeval world, filled with life and persuasive detail; the battle sequences and final duel are, as mentioned, tremendous. There are also very able performances from the four leads – apparently Ben Affleck, who co-wrote and produced the film with Damon and Nicole Holofcener, was initially intended to play le Gris, but chose to step back and take the smaller role of the Count, which may have been a smart move – Adam Driver is very good as le Gris, and Affleck gives his best performance in ages as the hedonistic nobleman.

But, on the other hand, it’s a film about a rape with a story structure that sounds suspiciously like something out of an art-house movie. It’s not quite a Rashomon clone, though: the differences between the three accounts of what happens are established solely through editing choices and the addition of different scenes; the dialogue and performances remain almost entirely unchanged. It’s skilfully achieved, with the characters appearing in subtly different lights as a result.

It is still a film about a sexual assault – which, when it comes, is soberly presented but still uncomfortable to watch (as it should be, of course). Here there is an unsettling mixture of unsavoury historical detail and contemporary parallel – the Count counsels le Gris to ‘deny, deny, deny’ the charges against him, while ‘victim-shaming’ is the very mildest way you could describe the way Marguerite is treated, particularly at the trial. On the other hand, it is made clear that rape is considered to be a property offence, with the husband being the wronged party, and the then-current view that rape could not result in pregnancy also becomes an element of the story.

If I had a criticism of The Last Duel it’s that the social commentary is not handled as subtly as it could have been; there is also the fact that the film appears to be playing favourites. The whole subtext of a multiple-perspectives narrative like this one is that truth is an objective and impossibly elusive thing – but one of the testimonies presented here is given privileged status, with the implication being that one of the participants really is telling the truth. It’s hard to see how this kind of editorialising is justified, even if one of the characters has a more natural claim to our sympathies than the other two.

Apart from that, I found this to be an absorbing and satisfying drama, with great production values, strong performances, and fine direction; the lengthy running time floats past. Perhaps its message is that things haven’t changed that much in society in over 600 years; even if they have changed, it’s clearly not enough. Either way, another strong movie from Scott and a reminder that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are more than just fine actors. Hopefully this movie will eventually get the recognition it deserves.

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