“The last duel”

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Editor’s Note: Second Take is an occasional series about recently released theatrical films.

Director Ridley Scott doesn’t let something trivial like age slow him down. The lively and spirited 83-year-old ends the year with two star-studded feature films, “House of Gucci” (coming next month) and this one, “The Last Duel”.

It goes without saying that Scott is no stranger to period sprawling epics. His latest fits perfectly into his filmography alongside “Gladiator”, https: //www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/oct/22/the-last-duel/ “Kingdom of Heaven” and the underrated “Robin Hood” from 2010 (I’ll gladly die on the hill defending that one). It’s huge in both scope and scale, it brilliantly recreates history through jaw-dropping production and costume design, and it doesn’t shy away from brutality. At the same time, it has some interesting qualities of its own.

In addition to touting Scott behind the camera, “The Last Duel” sees Ben Affleck and Matt Damon write a screenplay together for the first time since winning the Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” in 1997. They are joined by Nicole Holofcener, an award winner herself, most recently for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” in 2018. The trio’s script is based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book about the last Trial By Combat duel that took place in medieval France on December 29, 1386.

Slightly based on the summary historical narrative, the film opens in 1386 in Paris where two solemn-looking fighters, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), prepare for a duel to the death. A heavy chainmail is draped over their shoulders. The armor is attached piece by piece. Both men look intense and focused; doing their best to hide their apprehension. The two leave their quarters and ride on horseback, heading to the center of a small arena where the King of France Charles VI (Alex Lawther) presides.

On a neighboring platform stands Marguerite (Jodie Comer), Carrouges’ wife, dressed in black from head to toe and her ankles closely chained. An accusation led to the duel and she knows the barbaric outcome will determine her fate. This duel between two men, and not her own testimony, will decide if she lives and is justified or if she is stripped, whipped and burnt alive. The physical and psychological grotesque of the scenario is not fully felt in the opening. But when we revisit that scene in the last 20 minutes, it hits like a ton of bricks.

We learn that Marguerite accused Le Gris of having raped her while her husband was gone to war. Le Gris denies the claim, which ultimately leads to the eponymous showdown. But what is the truth behind the charge? What really happened? After the captivating tease, the “Rashomon” effect kicks in and we are entitled to three chapters, each starting with “The truth according to …”. Scott gives us three stories of history, told from the point of view of Carrouges, Le Gris and finally Marguerite.

Together, their stories recount events beginning in 1377 and stretching back to the cold and violent day of the duel. Each version of the truth touches on many of the same encounters but with notable contradictions, some slight but others clearly distinct. The nifty script gives us a lot to glean from each account, but just as much information goes through the camera. Scott and DP Dariusz Wolski (the director’s quintessential cinematographer since “Prometheus” in 2012) revisit certain scenes several times but shoot them from different points of view. And as the camera gaze astutely changes from testimony to testimony, new details give us a clearer picture of the truth.

It doesn’t take long to understand the mystery behind what really happened. In fact, the second chapter (The Truth according to Le Gris) almost explains it. Instead, we’re tasked with figuring out who these characters really are. Along the way, we learn how Duelists have gone from friend to foe. We are shown how Carrouges, a man of war, met and married Marguerite, the daughter of a disgraced landowner. We see Le Gris sneaking into the good graces of the powerful and hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alençon (a stage thief Ben Affleck). And there’s the inevitable ending – a show of murderous savagery between two men where all semblance of humanity disappears.

The unruly accents aside, the cast is uniformly superb. Damon steps out of his comfort zone, overcoming a truly hideous mullet to give a muscular but surprisingly layered performance. Driver portrays his titled opportunistic preening at the right temperature. And then there’s Comer, a talented, up-and-coming actress who navigates her character at a time when misogyny was ingrained in society and issues with women were “issues of property.” Comer brings quiet strength and resilience to Marguerite, and while not all of the scenes in her chapter ring true, the performance still does.

Scott has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s always fun to see which side of him we’re going to get. “The Last Duel” sees Scott in great shape. His film is packed with exquisite period detail, captivating characters, and good old-fashioned storytelling. And Scott’s staging of the brutally intense finale visually rivals anything he’s done before. It is a talking film which may surprise some. But it’s never a chore, and the relevance of its topic really packs a punch. It’s also a nice alternative to the horror waves and big franchise movies that fill multiplexes.


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