Ridley Scott’s latest epic plays like an armour-clad reimagining of Rashomon crossed with a #MeToo-inflected remake of Straw Dogs. Inspired by author Eric Jager’s 2004 account of France’s last officially recognised judicial duel, in which God was trusted to pick the righteous winner, it’s effectively a medieval rape-revenge drama told in three chapters from three different perspectives, all leading up to one blood-soaked battle. Intriguingly, screenwriting duties have been divided across the film’s central characters, with co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who won an Oscar for their Good Will Hunting script) handling the male versions of this story while Nicole Holofcener lends “my perspective as a female” to bring a “different voice” to the table.
We open in Paris in 1386, with shots of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) being ritually dressed in black as her husband, Jean (Matt Damon), and his opponent, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), are laced into chainmail and armour. From here we spiral back to the Battle of Limoges, thrice revisiting events leading up to the titular duel, recounting “the truth according to” each teller. First up is Jean, who bravely saves Jacques’s life only to be betrayed when his erstwhile friend uses his influence with Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) to purloin Jean’s land and inheritance, and thence to “feloniously and carnally take my wife”, for which Jean demands duelling redress. Next comes Jacques’s version, in which Jean peevishly sues for land to which he has no right, and Marguerite, whose diminished dowry had aggrieved her dreary husband, offers only “the customary protests” to his advances (“because she is a lady”), which were “not against her will”.
Finally – and most engagingly – we have Marguerite’s account, an altogether more eye-opening version in which Jean and Jacques treat women as chattels, reduced by law and custom to the status of property. Scenes of equine mounting are heavy-handedly juxtaposed with Jean’s fruitless attempts to sire an heir (“I trust your ‘little death’ was a memorable and productive one,” he declares when spent), while Jacques’s narcissistic visions of flirtatious glances are revealed to be mere diplomatic smiles. This time it’s the malignancy of a world in which only men have power that is to the fore, presaging a showdown as absurd as it is brutal, leaving Marguerite in danger of being burned alive for the crime of daring to speak out.
To address the tonal shifts of this story without insensitive missteps requires great subtlety – not Scott’s strongest suit. While Thelma and Louise brought visual splendour to Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning script about two women finding a road of their own in the wake of sexual assault, The Last Duel instead gets bogged down in the mud and blood of its period milieu – a symphony of arrows-in-the-face violence and pestilential weather. From firelit interiors to rural exteriors, all is shrouded in murk, with random flutterings of poultry. Alehouses ring to the clatter of tankards while Pythonesque minstrels lurk in the shadows. There’s even some softcore lesbian trysting going on in the background to keep the Game of Thrones fans happy.
A mixed salad of accents is served up with some non-specific European garnish; at times, Jacques appears to have committed a crime punishable by having his vowels stretched upon a rack until dead. As for the haircuts, they’re a veritable battle of the bands, with Driver’s rock-star mane resembling that of an 80s goth, Affleck’s blond crop and goatee evoking a producer of Teutonic Eurodisco hits, and Damon saddled with a crime-against-nature mullet that screams mid-70s Midlands heavy metal.
Somewhere in the middle of all this chaos are a few astute observations about class, gender and justice. When Jacques is told to “deny, deny, deny” because the crowds have no capacity for nuance, it strikes a topical nerve. Yet despite a spirited performance from Comer and an impressive roster of supporting turns (including a scene-stealing Harriet Walter as Jean’s withering mother, Nicole), The Last Duel has a tendency to mirror its central battle’s attempts to address complex issues with the blunt tool of rabble-rousing spectacle.