In shades of the gunmetal gray that has become the grading palette of choice for Serious Historical Epics — possible because arterial blood spray shows up so nice and red against it —Ridley Scott‘s starry, surprisingly engaging “Rashomon“-inflected “The Last Duel” opens on the wintry December day of the duel in question. Battle-scarred knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), granite-faced despite an obscene mullet haircut that can only have been the result of a lost bet, is being helped into his armor. Elsewhere his lovely wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is being inserted into a severe, high-necked gown, while in his quarters, dashing squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) dons chainmail and shiny, dinged breastplate. “Tighter!” he snarls at a lackey who has not buckled his shin pad correctly. “Tighter!” think the ladies in the audience, as the camera sweeps along his breeches.
The men meet on horseback in the jousting grounds, paying deference to pipsqueak King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), who is watching the proceedings from the Royal Box, and exchanging glowering, loaded glances with louche Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck: blondes really do have more fun). It may be a retelling of a real-history rape case, but already there is something faintly — though enjoyably —ridiculous about the defiantly modern cast being treated with the pomp and solemnity of Scott’s old-school filmmaking. So much so that when the joust begins and the title smash-cuts in just as the men make contact for the first time, one half expects a record scratch and a freeze-frame on one of the principals’ faces with a “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” look on it. Though given that it’s the year 1386, perhaps it should be “Ye’re probably wonnederyng howe I ended up yn this sytuatyonne” or something.
Then again, maybe not – “The Last Duel” is set in the 14th century and based on a true story, but the script, co-written by Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, is scrupulously anachronistic. Even the word “rape,” which is bandied around a fair bit, was only beginning to take on its modern meaning back then; and the word “pants,” so delightfully showcased by Affleck’s Count, mid-orgy, affably telling best bro Le Gris to “Come in! Take your pants off!” would not be used at all for another several centuries. If you’re a historical accuracy nerd, “The Last Duel” will probably give you hives. But if you’re interested in the collision of 21st-century attitudes and mores with those of the Middle Ages — how much we have changed and how much we have not — there’s an archness here that provides quite some grist to that particular mill.
So you’re wondering how they all got into this situation, and you’re about to be told, three times over. Using a he-said, he-said, she-said tripartite structure, “The Last Duel” starts with “The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” which is a canny choice because de Carrouges is the most blockish and humorless of the three principals, and his version needs at least the novelty factor of being first up. In many expensive-looking yet bite-sized battle scenes, the backstory covered here is mostly about the evolution and devolution of his friendship with Le Gris. They fight valiantly alongside each other. De Carrouges saves Le Gris’ life. They are the best of friends until their liege lord Count d’Alencon, who loathes de Carrouges, decides to make a pet of the landless, birthright-less Le Gris, eventually elevating him over his former bestie, whose family is one of the oldest and best-respected in the region. But it’s not until a dispute over a parcel of land that was supposed to be part of de Carrouge’s new wife’s dowry comes into the equation that de Carrouges feels truly betrayed by Le Gris. The rift means that, when he comes home from a trip one evening to discover his loving wife, whom he totally cherishes, is claiming that Le Gris finagled his way into their castle and raped her, he is primed to believe her and ready to risk life and reputation to make Le Gris pay. In all of this, de Carrouges, obviously self-servingly, comes across as a decent, honorable, unfairly wronged man, a courageous soldier for the King’s causes, and a good husband loved and respected by all. But we already know that’s a little fishy: his haircut alone proves that at least his barber hates him.
But it’s in part II, “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris,” that “The Last Duel” starts to get spicy, not least because of the genuinely surprising choice to make the three accounts differ from each other in far more subtle ways than one might expect. For one thing, the actual rape scene, which we see here for the first time, is, to a modern eye, unambiguously a rape, even in the version that might most be expected to favor the accused rapist. In retrospect, this was probably the only acceptable way to present such a fraught subject in a big-budget 2021 film. Instead of instilling any doubt as to the non-consensuality of the assault, Holofcener, Affleck, and Damon write the scene in such a way that it shows how le Gris – and by extension, most of the men of the day – had such a blinkered view of the world that they could construe their violent assaults on protesting women as acts of passionate love. After all, how can an act be non-consensual if the victim is not enough of a person to be capable of giving or denying consent? How can anything ever have been rape if men, constantly delusionally high after huffing the glue of patriarchy for millennia, do not declare it to be so?
The modern slant shows most, of course, in the third section, in which Comer comes into her own and Marguerite gets to offer her version of events, which inevitably must be seen as the definitive one. But that’s not just a knee-jerk reaction to our #believeallwomen moment; in Marguerite’s account, the film’s cleverest bait-and-switch is pulled. For anyone who’s been rather guiltily enjoying all the bros-before-hos shenanigans so far (and with Affleck being this much campy good value, how can you not?) with quite some wit and slyness, “The Last Duel” suddenly proves it’s fully self-aware, and that pretending, with the stentorian seriousness of which Ridley Scott is so capable, that it was going to exactly emulate 14th Century society by telling the story of a rape trial through the eyes of the menfolk involved, was part of the gotcha all along.
Let’s not overstate: “The Last Duel” is no revolutionary text and exists primarily as an excuse for a bunch of charismatic stars to ride horses and snarl at each other by candlelight en route to a genuinely exciting dueling-douchebag climax. But given all that, it’s really rather heartening that Affleck, Damon, and Driver are all on such good form in betraying their gender to this degree, as they conspire in illustrating, in a fun, undemanding, slickly made way, how men are now and have always been, the absolute fucking worst. [B]