Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► The Last Duel is available to stream on Disney+ now.
A concern for truth lies at the heart of Sir Ridley Scott’s new epic film The Last Duel and it follows a thin red line connecting all his period films from The Duellists (1977) to Robin Hood (2010). Whether it is truth versus legend (who was Robin Hood really?) or versus historical fact (who was Christopher Columbus really?), Scott’s historical films have relentlessly interrogated the past, at once alert for contemporary parallels while respecting the pastness of the past – the difference of it. The Last Duel is one of his most successful ventures: nuanced yet large in scale, complex yet direct, brutal and exciting while astutely noting that the devil is often in the detail.
The film begins in 1386. Two men are to face off in a trial by combat to ascertain who is right in the argument. The men are Jean de Carrouges, played by a bulky mullet-adorning Matt Damon; the other is the feline Jacques Le Gris, played with spectacular panache and flourish by the constantly great Adam Driver. The argument revolves around the alleged rape involving Jean’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), who Jacques is accused of assaulting. Under the eyes of the pubescent Charles VI (Alex Lawther), the men don their armour, take their lances and thunder towards each other on horseback, before Scott perpetrates what can only be described as duellum interruptus, presenting the rest of the film as three flashbacks: each telling the version of the story from the point of view of one of the protagonists. So far, so Rashomon.
Daringly, Scott and the screenwriters – Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener – have taken each chapter almost as if they were different films, with each screenwriter adopting the viewpoint of an individual character. And Scott has filmed them in subtly different ways, not simply as conflicting versions of the facts, but as different genres.
So we begin with Jean de Carrouges’s version as a typical soldier’s tale, full of fights and bloodshed. Jean is a Ridley Scott hero: the honest man of violence, slighted by the local noble Pierre (Ben Affleck) and betrayed by his friend Jacques, whose life he saved in battle. He is awkward in romance, his relationship with Marguerite tender and clumsy. Jacques, on the other hand, believes he saved Jean’s life. He pities his friend even as his own career takes off due to his talent and the admiration of Count Pierre. Whereas Jean’s chapter is stolid and humourless, Jacques’s is witty and fun. An epicure, he places what has passed between him and Marguerite within a courtly tradition of lovemaking. On being accused of rape, he is genuinely shocked, like a rock star accused by a groupie: Marguerite, he says, made “the customary protestations”, because she’s a lady, but this was not rape.
The final chapter is Marguerite’s version. She sees Jean as a man who on their wedding day is more concerned with her dowry than with her. She is proud of her husband, something she repeatedly tells him, understanding the fragility of his ego; in return, she is marginalised and demeaned by him. Yes, she is attracted to Jacques, as she admits to her friend Celia (Clare Dunne), but this is not an invitation. And her no means no. It is not a ‘customary protestation’.
In one sense, Scott’s film feels like something of a summation of his career: a return to Ridley country, which despite existing across many periods retains a consistent atmosphere. The snow tends to blow sideways; there is palpable grime and wood smoke. In the mud-coloured landscape, the one thing that can be relied on to provide a ruby-red dash of colour is gouts of blood. Overall, there is the deep pessimism of a disappointed romantic. As Gene Hackman’s detective says in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975): “No one is winning; just one team is losing slower.”
And yet this also feels like a daring departure for the 83-year-old filmmaker and his collaborators. His storytelling delights in picking out the detailed differences in each version: some trivial, some comic, some tragic. As for the performances, Matt Damon bravely takes to pieces his own likeable version of male heroics, and Driver, following his role in Leos Carax’s Annette earlier this year, again engages his charisma in the service of something dark. Affleck cheekily nabs some of the best lines for himself, in a turn that adds some camp irony to the piece. But it is Comer who is the hero, playing two versions of herself as men see her before finally finding her own voice.
Ridley Scott: five essential films
British-born filmmaker Ridley Scott moved from a background in advertising to directing some of the finest blockbusters of the modern era. Here are five films when Scott was at his very best.
By Paul O’Callaghan