The Last Duel

The Last Duel ★★★★★

I can recall a handful of moments from my life, such as supposedly being bullied at school, supposedly being cruelly rejected by a woman whom I wanted to date, or supposedly being taken advantage of by an employer, when I believed for years that I had been mistreated, only to realize later, from an objective hindsight adult perspective, that I was the villain, that I was the one in the wrong. I suppose that truth bomb epiphanies of this sort are a sign of self-actualization, when we understand, upon growing up, that, although we are always the main stars of the ball game in our own minds, others see us differently than we perceive ourselves.

These realizations hounded me throughout the run time of the 2021 historical drama, The Last Duel, which was directed by Ridley Scott and based on an actual trial by combat between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris in medieval Paris during the year 1386, after Le Gris was accused of raping the former's wife, Marguerite de Carrouges. This film is divided into three chapters, with the first conveyed from the point of view of Carrouges, played by Matt Damon, the second told from the perspective of Le Gris, played by Adam Driver, and the third told from the standpoint of Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer. This narrative framework takes cues from Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic, Rashomon, and drenches them with blood in Scott's wonderfully-detailed way, containing battle sequences and fights that rival the filmmaker's own 2000 blockbuster, Gladiator.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who is cast as Count Pierre d'Alençon in the film, collaborate as writers for the first time since Good Will Hunting, sharing the screenplay credits with Nicole Holofcener. All three of whom navigate their way through this tale of feudal politics, Church rule, and gender dynamics with surprising finesse. The finished product is not always pleasant to watch, especially with regard to the centerpiece plot development, the rape which is first depicted from the mindset of the male perpetrator, whose reputation for cornering women is rooted in his entitlement values regarding the plundered rewards of warfare, and then shown in a more brutal light from the view of the female victim.

Medieval knights and jousting matches may not figure into present day, but our modern world is still sadly host to the treatment of women as property and to cruelty masquerading as religion. One scene, where Comer's Marguerite is informed by the clergy that it is impossible for a rape to result in a pregnancy, will undoubtedly compel astute moviegoers to draw parallels to the new millennium. Thanks to Scott's visual deliberateness, we wince at every stabbing during the titular showdown. Thanks to the powerhouse cast and the well-paced chapter layout, we also understand the stakes of the duel, where Marguerite, confined in irons, will be burned alive if her husband loses, because such an outcome would demonstrate in the eyes of those in charge that the will of God is not in favor of her version of the truth. Regardless of the century or the setting, the world is a frightening place when our futures are in the hands of those in whose minds we are not the stars.

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