In 14th century France, knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) share a volatile friendship. Saving one another’s lives in battle, they establish a lifelong fellowship, but when Le Gris ends up with a patch of land that has been promised to Carrouges as part of his dowry for wedding Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), greed and pride drive a wedge between the two men. The dispute culminates when Marguerite tells her husband she was sexually assaulted by Le Gris. Even though the practice of duels has been phased out, Carrouges seeks redemption by way of a fight to the death.

The Last Duel is not only director Ridley Scott’s return to the subject after his 1977 The Duellists, but it also marks the comeback of Academy award-winning writing duo Affleck-Damon, who developed the screenplay together with Nicole Holofcener. The names of both Hollywood golden boys have tangentially come up in the wake of #MeToo regarding clumsy, unfavourable remarks or the question of guilt by association. As such, the subversive nature of the feature’s script with its sharp exploration of toxic masculinity are surprisingly perceptive.

Ten years ago, the same story – after all, it is based on the true story of France’s last officially sanctioned duel – would have been told in a romantic manner: two men crossing swords over a woman, willing to kill or die for a chance to be with their beloved. Luckily, The Last Duel offers a more enlightened perspective.

In the tradition of Rashomon, the chaptered drama seeks to explore each of the involved parties’ version of events. What is handled particularly successfully is that the different truths go beyond the expected “he said/she said”. Rather, the separate accounts of Carrouges and Le Gris are a study in self deceit and delusions. Both men have a warped sense of righteousness, of ownership; and while they may speak of love, in the end their duel is merely a glorified pissing contest. 

The fact that this is a big budget, English-speaking production, in which French characters are all played by American and British actors, already sets the bar for expectations of historical accuracy. The language is erratic, ranging from orotund phrases such as “little death” for orgasm, to a sober “he raped me”. This adds an alienating effect but, as originally intended by Bertolt Brecht in his plays, the distance offers the spectator the chance to examine the characters’ acts and judge rather than empathise. 

Damon gives a sturdy performance, while Affleck as the blond-haired Count Pierre d’Alençon, who engages in orgies with Driver’s Le Gris, provides the necessary comic relief. Alex Lawther makes a brief appearance as Game of Thrones-worthy King Charles VI. The star of the film is undoubtedly Jodie Comer, who dominates every scene she is in – the exact opposite of the impotence of her character.

Awarded the Cartier Glory to the Filmmaker award on the The Last Duel‘s premiere, Sir Ridley Scott called it one of his best films – quite an accolade, considering his impressive back catalogue.

★★★★☆

Selina Sondermann

The Last Duel is released nationwide on 15th October 2021.

For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.

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