Thankfully, The Last Duel marks a return to form for director Ridley Scott. I keep thinking, I should be referring to him as ‘SIR’ Ridley and I’m doing him a disservice at best or lack of respect at worst, and I certainly intend neither. After all, I’ve followed and been fascinated, enthralled and horrified by his career ever since I read the lengthy interviews with him in Fantastic Films back when Alien came out in 1979. His Ridleygrams and keen eye for design was an inspiration for years while I was at High School and later doing my Degree in Art & Design. I think its true to say now that there is much more to his films than the visuals, even if that was the inevitable cheap shot targeted at him early on, and a general consensus he always seems damned by.
There was a time when the arrival of every new Ridley Scott film was something to get excited by. I think that waned pretty early on- of course, I loved Alien and Blade Runner and was frustrated by Legend, and I recall being mystified by Someone to Watch Over Me, as if it was Ridley selling out (something only intensified by Black Rain, and later G.I. Jane) when he’d gotten so many of us convinced he’d be the John Ford of sci-fi/fantasy films. Looking at his filmography today, its pretty mixed: some great films, some average films, some poor films, but its a pretty astonishing list of films, really, and that’s just considering him as director; he’s produced/executive produced a colossal amount of work in film and television.
But I remember the days I used to think he’d forever be making films that looked like Heavy Metal movies- a little like the days when I thought George Lucas would make nine Star Wars films in a relentless, wonderful three-yearly succession-and I have a wry smile considering my naivety back then. By the mid-eighties Ridley was off making ‘ordinary’ films and Lucas had abandoned Star Wars films completely.
The Last Duel is a little like the films I thought Ridley would always be making. Films depicting other worlds. I appreciate I’m falling into the trap, with this line of thinking, of Ridley just being a visual stylist, but the guy has the best eye in the business, and as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten so incredibly fast. The Last Duel is a return to the very beginning, and the pastoral beauty of The Duellists, his low-budget first feature that was hardly released and watched by pretty much nobody (hey, its like he’s gone totally full circle). It also reminds one of 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Kingdom of Heaven (the directors cut of which I consider to be one of his top five, maybe even top three, films), films which put worlds on screen as vividly alien as anything set on some other world or in some distant future.
Its interesting to consider The Duellists, though, because The Last Duel is in no way as pretty or visually intoxicating as that first film. The Duellists seemed to have something to prove (if only that Ridley could outdo Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon?), and is so painterly and beautiful. The Last Duel is very impressive visually, with its period setting evoked in just as tangible a reality, but it doesn’t draw attention to its visuals as much as Ridley’s earlier work. The Last Duel is more balanced, and intent on its character and narrative and acting performances: a more qualified and professional piece of work, perhaps. I just think its quite telling, comparing Ridley’s first film and this 2021 film.
So The Last Duel starts by telling us it is based on true events. Its essentially a Medieval rape-revenge drama, which is a summation that does it no favours at all, and its method of telling its narrative from three seperate viewpoints weighs the film down with a big Rashomon reference nailed to its back like an easy target. The Last Duel is no Rashomon– for one thing the three versions of the story are largely very similar, the differences pointedly the subjective view of each narrator, complicated by how much faith we have in who is being true and doubts regards what ‘truth’ even means in such a misogynistic world. Even the word ‘rape’ essentially has different meaning in 1386, less a crime against the female victim and more an affront to the man who ‘owns’ her. This is a horrifying world in which only men hold power and authority, and the woman Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) is caught in the middle of some long feud between past freinds Jean (Matt Damon), and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) which ends in typical bloody masculinity; a fight to the death which will decide the truth of her allegations and possibly result in her being flogged and burned alive. Hell yeah – this is the kind of film to outrage feminists everywhere and turn men into apologists for their gender (and as usual for Ridley, religion and its power machinations don’t come out too positively either).
What made The Last Duel so interesting and rewarding, for me, was the typical Ridley habit of featuring largely unlikeable characters. Even considering its general plotline, this is not the narrative one might expect in an audience-friendly Hollywood flick, characters don’t tick the boxes we’d usually expect. Jean, the wronged husband nominally defending his wife’s reputation is a brute, something of a monster. He’s a violent man more disposed to the battle field, largely unread and uncultured, and always on the brink of poverty. Its telling that he marries Marguerite not out of love but more out of the need of her dowry, paid to him by her father, in order to keep Jean solvent – part of his grievance with Jacques Le Gris is because Le Gris is gifted land which Jean thought he was entitled to as part of Marguerite’s dowry. Le Gris meanwhile is less the warrior and more the gifted socialite, working his way up through society through his manners and cultured upbringing rather than prowess serving the King on battlefields. This might suggest that he is a ‘nicer’, more likeable character but far from it- he’s actually quite repellent as regards his treatment of women (albeit one must remember its typical of that period). Its interesting how the film portrays the actual rape- first from Le Gris’ point of view, which sees Marguerite’s protestations as token actions of ‘a lady’ who is actually quite willing, and then how we see it from Marguerite’s own view. Even something as subtle as Marguerite slipping off her footwear before backing upstairs towards her bedroom – enticingly provocative in Le Gris’ account, whereas they simply fall off in her rising panic as she flees for safety upstairs in Marguerite’s telling.
In truth, I don’t think anyone comes across well in the film other than Marguerite- this is a film in which all men are largely bastards and dismissive of women other than as objects of lust or vessels for children. Perhaps the film lacks the sophistication to suggest that the men are not inherently evil, rather more products of their society and world, or perhaps that’s expected as a given. Its possibly one of the weaknesses of the film, that we don’t really ‘like’ either of the two men caught in combat during the final duel, but that’s possibly a case of reality getting in the way of empathy with the narrative. In an ‘ordinary’ or traditional film, we’d have a hero to root for, one of the men on the side of ‘right’. Instead we’re more concerned in the twists of the fight to the death as regards what it means for poor Marguerite who will be summarily tortured and executed if her husband falls. I have to admit, I felt quite tense during the last duel, having absolutely no idea who was going to be victorious or what the ultimate outcome for Marguerite might be, so some kudos for the film there. Its nice when watching a modern film not being able to second-guess or predict it. Neither man is really fighting for Marguerite- Jean has old scores to settle and the personal sense of affront regards his sullied wife, while Le Gris has likely already moved on to some other female conquest.
Ironically however, for all the failings of the characters themselves, the actors come across very well indeed, and barring a few dodgy accents and a turn from Ben Affleck as the rich Count Pierre d’Alençon, cousin to the mad King and court ally of Le Gris, which I’ve still got mixed feelings about., the cast is excellent. Comer is just brilliant, probably the best performance in the film and one of the best I’ve seen all year. Damon and Driver are both very good, giving nuanced performances of complex and flawed characters, engaging and repellent in equal measure, something not at all easy. I think one of the improvements in Ridley’s films over the years has been his work with actors and one can see that here.
So this may not be top-tier Ridley, whatever that actually means as there are so many differing opinions regards which are his best films (hell, I actually like The Counsellor) but its certainly a solid film and one of his better ones – most definitely a return to form. Time, of course, will provide the true yardstick, rather than the frankly appalling box-office which has left this film cited as the bomb of the year. I’d like to think the film will find its audience over time, and apparently this already may well be the case with home streaming figures reportedly being high- its just perhaps not the film to drag punters into cinemas, particularly during a pandemic. So wrong film, wrong time… that’s hardly a first for Ridders.