‘The Last Duel’: Anachronistic, Self-Contradictory—and Enjoyable
Even a missed opportunity can sometimes hit the mark
How could a movie be better than I had hoped and worse than I had feared? Such is the case with Ridley Scott’s medieval epic, The Last Duel.
I had written about the film’s softcore porn elements last year, before I had had the chance to see the movie myself. (I commented only on the sexually explicit content, since softcore porn isn’t something we need to watch in order to critique. Pornography—even softcore content—isn’t something Christians grade on a curve.)
The film is divided into three parts, each of which follows the perspective of a particular character:
Sir Jean de Carrouges, played by Matt Damon. (Damon himself wrote this part of the screenplay.)
Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. (Ben Affleck wrote this part of the screenplay.)
Marguerite, Jean’s wife, played by Jodie Comer. (Nicole Holofcener wrote this part of the screenplay.)
Because I don’t like financially supporting films with hypersexualized content, I had to wait until I could acquire a used copy of The Last Duel after it was released on DVD. Now that I’ve watched through the film (save for the explicitly sexual scenes), I’m able to further comment on the movie as a whole.
For the uninitiated, I typically rate movies based on three criteria: objectionable Content (C), Artistic merit (A), and my personal Preference (P). (C-A-P. Get it?)
Content (C): 3 out of 10
As I wrote last year, I appreciate the intent behind The Last Duel. Unfortunately, the noble intentions of the film are seriously sabotaged by the filmmakers themselves. The main problem comes from Chapter 2 (the section of the film written by Ben Affleck). In this section, The Last Duel considers it expedient to objectify some of its actresses:
Yes, the main actors in The Last Duel—including Jodie Comer—remain fully, or mostly, clothed. It is “only” a handful of actresses in the background who are completely naked for an orgy scene. But that is actually an expression of the very problem the film attempts to critique—i.e., the imbalance of power between men and women. . . .
The naked women populating the background of the orgy footage in The Last Duel are not A-list actresses who thought it would be a good idea to add “softcore lesbian trysting” to their résumé to help them get more work. No, these women, at this point in their careers, aren’t granted enough clout and agency to dictate their wardrobe choices. Their names may not carry the prestige of a Damon or Driver or Comer or Affleck, but these no-names still have names—Elise, Fiona, Tassia, and Camille, to be precise. In fact, for three of these four women, The Last Duel represents their first stint as actors.
Both The Guardian and Culture Mix Online compare the film’s orgy scenes to softcore porn. The latter also mentions how these scenes appeal to the stereotypical fantasies of men: women sexually acting out with each other while men sit and watch.
It is odd—tragically so—that a film designed to critique the commodification of women by men in power would employ the commodification of aspiring actresses for entertainment.
Furthermore, I noticed that the third chapter (Marguerite’s perspective) seems to be affected by a warped view of truth. The three chapters of The Last Duel each begin with a slate that says, “The truth according to [the character’s name].” With the third chapter, Marguerite’s name soon fades, leaving only the words “The truth.” Because Marguerite is the victim in the story, it is only her perception that truly matters.
While it is true that marginalized people have a greater experiential knowledge of certain societal abuses, postmodernists claim that oppressed peoples have an inherent access to truth that other people do not. Thus, “truth” is more a product of who is talking rather than what is being said. It’s more an issue of power (i.e., who has it) than reality (i.e., what happened).
To be sure, when dealing with situations like sexual assault, the victim’s experience—which society has too often neglected, contradicted, or belittled—is of paramount importance. In a sense, we do need to “listen to oppressed voices”in order to rightly address the abuses of our culture. We must not, however, take that idea to the postmodern extreme, where the concept of truth becomes more a matter of perspective than facts. Truth is not a malleable commodity—and certainly not for something considered “The true story of a woman who defied a nation and made history” (as the film’s tagline goes).
Artistry (A): 5 out of 10
Artistically, The Last Duel has a lot going for it: cinematography, production design, and musical score, just to name a few. The visual and aural immersion in medieval France is captivating.
Nevertheless, the film suffers from a couple problems. First is its misuse of the Rashomon Effect—i.e., viewing the same series of events from several different perspectives. The whole purpose of the Rashomon Effect is to present audiences with a number of conflicting viewpoints, the authenticity of which we are to decipher. In The Last Duel, that question is answered with absolute certainty: the third chapter is literally titled “The truth”—thus negating the two previous chapters. If told in a straightforward fashion, the narrative could have been both tightened and shortened.
The film is also marred by the inclusion of several anachronisms. Especially in the third chapter, the character of Marguerite pontificates with a decidedly 21st century ethos. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t trust in the strength of the story to stand on its own feet; instead, they chose to insert dramatic speeches from Marguerite that echo a distinctly modern sentimentality. In certain scenes, her response mirrors that of a #MeToo activist more than a 14th century matron. The Last Duel can’t help but drive home its point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Rather than letting us draw the connection between the chauvinism of 1380s France and our own day, the filmmakers set up neon signs with flashing lights to point the way.
Additionally, while we’ve already looked at the content issues, the pornification of the story is an artistic issue as well as a moral one. It makes the film talk out of both sides of its mouth, denouncing the mistreatment of women in principle while winking at it in practice. As one who skipped the scenes of sex, I can attest to the efficacy of the script without their presence; some well-placed lines of dialogue tell us all we need to know about Le Gris as a womanizer with a sense of entitlement.
It should be noted also that this is not Ridley Scott’s first demonstration of self-contradiction as a filmmaker. Gladiator, ostensibly designed in part to critique human violence as entertainment, utilizes graphic and gory human violence for entertainment. Such contradictory material may not hinder audience enjoyment of a film (Gladiator was a critical and financial success), but it does damage the integrity of the film’s thematic core.
Preference (P): 9 out of 10
To be honest, I really enjoyed this film. That may come as a surprise, considering what I’ve said about it thus far.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for gorgeous cinematography, and the splendid visuals coupled with a magnificent musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams kept me captivated from the beginning. In fact, The Last Duel is likely my favorite Ridley Scott film to date. The two-and-a-half hour runtime felt much shorter to me.
Part of my uninhibited enjoyment lies in the fact that I was intimately familiar with the film’s most glaring faults beforehand. If I had been blindsided by the gratuitous sexual content, it would have soured my viewing experience. (A comparison could be made to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: being aware beforehand of that film’s extensive artistic license, I was free to enjoy its more redemptive elements.)
While The Last Duel could have been shorter, I didn’t mind the Rashomon Effect; few scenes overlapped, and there were slight differences in those scenes that kept the proceedings from being boring. It might not have been the most effective way to tell the story, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.
I’ve seen the film criticized for various acting and hairstyle issues. Personally, the only aspect I found distracting was Affleck’s presence. Both his screenwriting and his character stuck out like a gangrenous thumb. Everyone else did a fine job—especially Jodie Comer (in spite of the criticisms of her character given above).
It’s also impressive how gripping the climactic duel is. Even for those who know how the story ends, the fight to the death between Carrouges and Le Gris is emotionally arresting. The high stakes involved keep the battle tense all the way to the final blow.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like what the film is trying to do. While societies change over the years, human nature stays the same. Even in our “enlightened” egalitarian times, the lust for power and the abuse of women in society continue to manifest themselves in different ways. That we as a culture are perpetuating some of the errors of times past is a reality we need to reckon with. The problem isn’t with the intended message of The Last Duel, but with its method of delivery.
All things considered, The Last Duel is a technically proficient but morally compromised film that could have been something much greater. It’s still enough for me to enjoy, but its efficacy as a piece of cultural commentary is unnecessarily muted by its own self-contradictions. It maligns its own message by capitulating to the misogynist whims of the very culture it attempts to critique.
CAP score: 57%
By that, I mean we should learn how to apply Scriptural principles and commands such as these: “Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3); “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13); “A righteous man [considers] the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge” (Proverbs 29:7); “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17); “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:16).
Anecdotally, my wife found the film’s anachronisms especially irritating—and even infuriating. As an MA in English Literature familiar with medieval literature and culture, she bristled at the disrespect shown for medieval decorum and perspective evidenced by inserting a modern woman into 14th century France.