Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” is set in France in the late 1300s, and after a clangingly violent early battle scene, as well as a flashforward to the title duel, in which a pair of sworn rivals in heavy armor come at each other on horseback, each brandishing his lance a lot (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the film looks like it might be a swords-and-blood-in-the-mud movie: one of those flashy brutal period spectaculars which Scott, the director of “Gladiator,” seems ideally suited to. But no. Despite a brief action interlude here or there, “The Last Duel” turns out to be a lavishly convoluted and, at times, rather interesting medieval soap opera.
Written by the unlikely trio of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener (it’s the first script that Damon and Affleck have collaborated on since “Good Will Hunting” planted them at the epicenter of the indie-film universe), the movie is trying for something. It’s based on a true story, and it tells that story in a way that’s at once heady and sensual, thorny and elemental, with a ribald royal decadence but also a plot that turns on such furrowed-brow real-world issues as debt and land rights. For a while (roughly the first half), “The Last Duel” is an engrossing drama of ambition, romance, and political chicanery in Normandy under the “mad” reign of King Charles VI.
Yet it’s also a movie that flirts with, and sometimes falls into, an extravagant kind of costume-drama camp. The accents are all over the place. The acting teeters between the operatic and the overstated. At times, it’s like watching “A Man for All Seasons” meets “Game of Thrones” with a soupçon of Monty Python. What’s more, there’s a structural idiosyncrasy at the movie’s core. It presents, in succession, three different versions of the same tale, offering variations on the events from the point-of-view of each of the three central characters. It’s a catchy idea in theory, but a tricky one to bring off. “The Last Duel” presents itself as a puzzle told in three chapters (in each section, new pieces fall into place), and if done right the three versions will add up to more than the sum of their parts. If not, more becomes less.
The first section is told from the vantage of Jean de Carrouges, a righteous soldier of the king — he’s not yet a knight but will soon become one — who’s a fearless, relentless warrior, with the wounds to prove it. He’s played by Damon in a 14th-century mullet, with a sprout of beard that makes him look Amish and a spidery scar on his right check. De Carougges, as befitting his name, is a sternly bravely squire devoted to the higher loyalties; he believes he exists to serve France, to serve the king, to serve God. That makes him sound like a figure of commanding nobility, and he is. Yet Damon, who has played surly sociopaths but has never looked this dour onscreen, also makes de Carougges a righteous scold, a man of such rigidly imposed sincerity and honor that he’s not exactly the life of the party.
Far looser and more charismatic, if not as selfless in his outlook, is Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who with his goatee and flowing dark hair has a d’Artagnanesque rock-star élan about him. These two, who will wind up fatal enemies in that fateful title duel, start off as friends and comrades, with a vibe of hale-fellow-well-met valor. It is, of course, love that knocks the friendship askew, though maybe not in quite the way we expect. De Carrouges has glimpsed a nobleman’s beautiful daughter, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and asked for her hand in marriage. As the film presents it, it’s literally a courtly arrangement, almost a business proposition, though Damon, who has spent most of his career avoiding romantic roles, and Jodie Comer, with a luminous gaze of demure intelligence, don’t act as if they don’t belong together. The match has been made according to patriarchal codes both characters take for granted, and we’re eager to see if some feeling will flood between the cracks.
The complication is this. As part of the marital agreement, de Carougges has asked Marguerite’s father, Sir Robert (Nathaniel Parker), to add to her dowry a valuable piece of land. But Le Gris, who is good friends with Count Pierre d’Alençon, the king’s overseer of Normandy (he’s played by Affleck as a blond aristocrat with a smirk of contempt), has been entrusted with the task of gathering all the debts the count is owed. And since Sir Robert is one of those debtors, Le Gris pressures him into giving the count that very piece of land. The count, grateful to Le Gris, then offers him the land as a gift.
De Carrouges now faces a situation in which the land that was supposed to be his, nothing less than his marital reward, has been swiped from under his nose by his trusted comrade. It’s the extreme way de Carougges reacts to this that sets the film’s turbulence in motion. “The Last Duel,” while set 600 years ago, is, in its way, a drama of corporate politics. It’s about knowing enough not to ruffle the feathers of the boss, which de Carougges, in his moralistic pique, makes the mistake of doing. As for Le Gris, he finds a most treacherous way to undercut his friend. It will involve de Carrouges’ wife, who happens to think Le Gris is quite handsome.
What’s appealing about “The Last Duel” is that it’s actually, at heart, a rather old-fashioned movie: talky and intricate, spinning around what looks like a competitive, destructive love triangle. What’s odd about it is that it lacks the satisfying dramatic clarity of an old movie. If this story had been made by Hollywood during the studio-system era, one could envision a version of it in which de Carrouges, the uptight devoted good guy, fails to strike the sparks with his wife that Le Gris, the charismatic scoundrel, does. And that would be played out. There are moments when “The Last Duel” seems like that very movie. But only moments.
The plot turns on an act of sexual assault, and in the second segment (told from Le Gris’s self-aggrandizing point-of-view), the movie flirts, however briefly, with treating that act the way that Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” did: with supreme ambiguity. But that would be a dicey thing to do in our era, so the film backs off from any ambiguity. Morally, that leaves it in good standing. But dramatically, it leaves it sort of just sitting there. We get de Carrouges’ version of the events. Then we get Le Gris’, which is just different enough to tease us. Then we get Marguerite’s, which matches up entirely with de Carougges’. By then you feel the wind going out of the movie’s sails.
There are entertaining bits throughout. Affleck plays the count as a supercilious, foul-mouthed libertine who likes to bed four women at once, and you feel how much fun the actor is having playing someone this piggish in his arrogance. Jodie Comer makes her mark, holding the screen with a calm fire. And though it’s occasionally hard to distinguish the intentional from the unintentional awkwardness in Damon’s performance, it’s amusing to see him stray so willfully out of his comfort zone. The climactic duel, a re-enactment of the last one ever sanctioned in France, is certainly a slash-to-the-death rouser in that “Gladiator”-in-chain-mail way. But for a movie that’s attempting to immerse us in the reality of the Middle Ages, it’s jarring to see the plot hinge on the notion that in 14th-century France, it was considered universal wisdom that a woman couldn’t conceive a child unless she experienced sex in a highly pleasurable way. Talk about a notion that seems at once medieval, anachronistic, and more than a bit concocted. Sort of like “The Last Duel.”
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