The Last Duel

The Last Duel ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The Last Duel is the story of the last duel in medieval France - one noble trying to hold another noble to account, for the rape of his wife. The three leads each have a different account of the events in question, or a different emphasis, so the film plays out in four chapters - the story from Sir Jean de Carrouges's perspective, then we hear from the rapist Le Gris, then from Marguerite and then, finally, the duel itself, where the stories converge.

I thought this was very, very good. I was wondering while watching what I'd made of it if I hadn't read the non-fic book it was based off. The book is really phenomenal and, not knowing the ending when I read it, one of the most tense, propulsive things I'd ever come across. The film's interesting because it is not especially tense and, deliberately so given its structure, not propulsive.

It has something on its mind other than the course of maximum drama. And it's kind of fascinating to me in how its central statement is that the central thrust of these classic kinds of stories - the course 99% of all potential adaptions of this story would have taken - that the duel itself could possibly represent catharsis - would only serve to reinforce or validate the patriarchal forces Marguerite had been so trapped by.

It's very much a film where, on first watch, it invites you to actively think about the choices it is making, and it's made them quite carefully. For instance, the Rashomon subjective perspective thing -- seeing an event play out from three perspectives -- might well lead you to expect that we see a scenario play out in which Marguerite did lie, and was not raped-- with the audience ultimately invited to choose the version of events they prefer, much as the director would have various tools to favour one narrative over the other. That's not actually the case here.

In Le Gris's account, he's still a rapist, unambiguously so, and the emphasis is not on whether or not Marguerite lied - Scott and the script are at pains to leave no space to suggest she did - but on the mechanics of how Le Gris is able to justify his actions to himself, how he pulls on chivalric romance tropes, as well as the legal status of women, to shore up his position. It would have been easy to imagine a more dramatic version of this - and likely the version that would've been made 10 years ago, in which the truth is positioned more ambiguously. TDL's refusal to even countenance the suggestion actually frees up the film to spend its midsection focussed on the nuances of rapist self-deception, the social and cultural context which makes such behaviour, and Le Gris's retrat to flimsy self-denial, possible. Which I think is good.

Marguerite's section is interesting. The film is not subtle about which of the three accounts it supports, regardless of how favouring either of the other two would not mean denying the central assault. Some of the choices here are interesting. Which is to say, it'll take a second watch to really work out how I feel about them. It does not really balance light and shade. At every turn, the film - with a lot of blanks in the historical record and actually a lot of ambiguity in how Marguerite and her husband got on - presents her life as completely shit, oppressive and stifling, before and after the rape. She gets a happy ending, as it were, but it comes about not by the death of her rapist, but from the death of her husband too.

You could imagine a much more conventional take on this material basically making it the story of a medieval wife guy who put his life on the line to save his wife's honour. You could imagine that version of this being massive and conventionally very dramatically satisfying, in a Gladiator sort of fashion. But the picture Scott made just isn't that film, and takes pains to spell out why. The duel itself, with Marguerite's life placed in the balance should her husband lose, is positioned as an act of monumental vanity and cruelty, and the catharsis as ultimately somewhat hollow - Le Gris death centred as a reassertion of Jean's property rights rather than justice for his wife. It makes for a less-rousing viewing experience, but feels brutally, valuably honest. I think there's an interesting thought process ticking along, in terms of how sanitised, modern takes on medieval stories can serve to validate or romanticise cultural norms that were predicated on a brutal dehumanisation of women, whether you apply a heavy dose of hollywood gloss or not.

The titular duel is very well done, and Scott is at this point - between The Duellists, Gladiator and this - is simply the all-time GOAT at this stuff. I don't have a lot to say about it. It's played as grotesque, a monumental folly, but as bitterly satisfying too. It's one of the best fights ever filmed probably.

So yeah. The thing that struck me most about this is how it leans away from the most conventionally dramatic or satisfying choices in favour of the most honest. Ridley Scott, gotta appreciate him while he's still going. It's another late-career marvel imo.

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