I love her New York stories, but The Last Duel is the Nicole Holofcener historical epic we’ve long waited for. While The Last Duel will doubtlessly be celebrated—and rightly so—as a Ridley Scott film, its co-writer brings a uniquely sharp perspective to this adaptation of Eric Jager’s thrilling book. Working with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon—best buds in life, frenemies in the film—Holofcener and her colleagues deliver a tense drama that brings history into the present tense. It takes a 1386 case in which two men engaged in trial by combat as one man’s wife accused the other party of rape. While Jager’s book leaves no ambiguity about what befell Marguerite de Carrouges, the film takes a Rashômon–style consideration. Men are the unreliable narrators as the film implores us to believe women.
Marguerite’s perspective comes as a surprise as The Last Duel affords her respect and agency. The film, however, begins with the events seen from the perspective of husband. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a noble knight, in his esteem, with his tale of courageous battles. The film builds to his eventual marriage to Marguerite (Jodie Comer) as Jean sees it as a well-earned reward for his valiant efforts. Battles are won, villages are taken, Scots are slain. All in the name of the king.
Significantly, Jean’s battles intersect with a greater war: his estranged friendship with squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). No matter Jean’s valour, Jacques seems to get the best rewards while the knight suffers indignation. Jean, by his account, makes good by impressing Count Pierre (Ben Affleck) and speaking well before the king (Alex Lowther). And by wedding Marguerite, he finds some just rewards for his strength and sacrifices. Of course, until Jacques does his alleged deed.
He Said/He Said
The Last Duel flips the he said/she said duel formed by narratives of sexual violence as it lets the first competing accounts come from two men. Women at Marguerite’s time were considered property rather than people, so the violation thrown upon her ultimately registers as a slight against her husband. Jacques challenges the story that Jean hears in his tale: Marguerite matter-of-factly telling Jean that Jacques raped her while she was home alone.
In Jacques’ account, everything the audience saw from Jean’s perspective falls under question. What plays as a heroic battle charge in Jean’s mind becomes a scramble to correct poor judgment from Jacques’ perspective. Jean, a heroic knight by his account, is a bumbling doofus in Jacques’ eyes. But The Last Duel goes beyond the men comparing sizes. The film observes how people remember events differently, particularly traumatic ones. Lines of dialogue repeat in each chapter of The Last Duel, but different players speak them. Details differ. The men become unreliable narrators as their memories, motivations, and biases shape the histories they tell. The duel is a case is one man’s word against another.
It’s by this accord that Jean demands trial by combat to deliver justice—or, more aptly, to save face. The challenge demands the two men fight to the death. The he said/he said debate makes justice in the courts impossible, so God’s hand will presumably guide the just party to victory. The ruse of the battle, though, is that Marguerite’s fate is tied to Jean’s victory. As the party laying the charge, the law says that a loss by Jean proves Marguerite a liar and a sinner. She, too, will die if God sides with Jacques Le Gris.
The third perspective of The Last Duel brings things full Rashômon. Marguerite’s account plays out what happened in her bedchamber in full detail. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” can interfere. But her account humorously challenges the perspectives of both men, as part three attributes previously seen virtues or previously uttered lines to new parties. As The Last Duel shifts from the male gaze to the female gaze, it shows how one’s gender, one’s status, and one’s experience filter the ways in which one sees the world. This film is a brilliant study of perspectives and the role of agency involved in the acts of both looking and being seen.
Comer generally plays a supporting role in the first two parts of the story, but Duel is Marguerite’s show. The Killing Eve star sheds all the sauciness that won her an Emmy for her breakthrough turn as Villanelle, yet Marguerite commands the trial with an assassin’s edge. Where her TV counterpart is icy and unhinged, Comer’s Marguerite is cool, poised, and unshakable. The Last Duel presents a thoroughly modern reading of history, but Marguerite’s ability to hold her ground under pressure makes it relevant. It’s Comer’s first leading film role and she truly has magnetic screen presence. As Marguerite resolves for the truth to come to light, she emerges the most credible narrator as Comer plays her with such conviction.
The Last Duel really comes alive in its casting, though, as all the major roles are spot-on. Damon is perfectly suited for the husband who nurses wounded pride in some eyes and acts the cuckold in others. He plays Jean with the right mix of valour, humility, and humour, shifting the knight’s qualities according to the story’s point of view. Driver, similarly, finds unique ways of carrying Jacques according to the perspective through which his actions are filtered. He is Kylo Ren is one witness’s eyes, and Charlie Barber in another. Affleck, meanwhile, nearly steals the film as the skirt-chasing Count. In all three storytellers’ eyes, Pierre is an entitled playboy. Notably, Affleck’s humorous performance is the same from all three perspectives.
As the cast delivers three formidable storytellers who challenge one’s ways of weighing truth and reason, The Last Duel provides a tense build-up to the fateful duel. Even though Marguerite’s testimony is the most compelling, the events that precede the face-off are a chilling reminder that her fate is in God’s (re: the patriarchy’s) hands. This could play out any way. Ridley Scott finds himself in his element as he stages the battles and duelling perspectives of The Last Duel. The battles are tough and gritty, as the action, even in the earliest scenes, mirrors the duelling perspectives. This is a film of blows and counter-blows. It’s Scott’s best work as a director since Gladiator. Finding compelling character-driven warm-up rounds for the breathtaking and suspenseful action, The Last Duel proves an edge-of-your-seat test of nerves. It turns out the key to Scott’s kingdom was a feminine perspective.
The Last Duel opens in theatres on October 15.