The Last Duel (2021): A Very Slow Epic, but Fantastic Ending
*WARNING: Talks of Sexual Assault*
Jean de Carrouges (played by Matt Damon) is a respected knight in the French Army during the 14th century and marries into a wealthy family to their only daughter, Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer). When Jean’s wife is assaulted by his former best friend Jacques le Gris (played by Adam Driver), it soon becomes a complex tale of hearsay among the 3 parties. But a corrupt Count Pierre (played by Ben Affleck) makes a ruling in favor of Jacques, this leads to Jean deciding to take matters into his hands and goes straight to the King of France requesting a Duel to the Death. Since the truth won’t set Marguerite free, it now comes down to a duel for the ages to decide what truth history will write.
The story The Last Duel is telling is very intricate and somehow feels both very modern and classical. Of course the social issues the film tackles are much more prevalent than they were back in medieval France, but it does something I never expected: it tells the same story from different points of view. Granted, we do get some scenes that do not need to be shown more than once (more on that later) but they also sell the different perspectives of each character. The Last Duel goes from 3 perspectives: Jean de Carrouges, Jacques le Gris, and Lady Marguerite. As we see each perspective, similar scenes change in the slightest of ways, showing how each character believes they are the hero of their story. The one scene that changes 3 times is when Jacques and Marguerite meet for the first time, with Jean and Jacques respectfully keeping the peace at a party you may notice their hand gestures when they embrace change. From both men’s narratives, they believe they are the bigger man, but from Marguerite’s perspective they remain the same.
Now, this paragraph will become a TRIGGER WARNING, as I will be talking about the titular sexual assault of the film. Please skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to hear what I have to say. Narratively speaking, I see why they decided to show the assault from two perspectives. HOWEVER, the fact that we have the rapist remain adamant that he was falsely accused and our victim steadfast in her truth would have added more of a mystery and added layers to each character's arc leading up to the duel. It also leads to my next complaint; it was not necessary to show the assault twice in the same film, just cut away when at the door for Jacques chapter and keep everything else. Yeah, we don’t want to see an assault happen anywhere, but if a story revolves around a woman fighting for her truth in a system designed to oppress women, it would have added weight to both the story and the commentary leading up to Marguerite’s chapter.
I also have an issue with the pacing of the film. There are parts that seem to take its slow pace in stride using it effectively by keeping us occupied with what is one screen. But at other times it feels like the film slows down to a standstill, especially when it uses several scenes from the different character’s perspectives. It feels boring hearing the same story over and over and over, like 3 students decided to write an essay on the same event but didn’t realize it until they read each other’s work in class. While this slow burn does work at times, it still had me checking my watch every so often. The slow burn up to the duel could have been used better, I have seen films use this effectively with a shorter runtime such as The VVitch and Arrival. While it does lead to a very brutal but extremely satisfying conclusion with its titular Duel between le Gris and de Carrouges, it did not feel relatively worth it with its 182 minute runtime.
Even though the story is bogged down by its pacing, the performances really elevated The Last Duel’s shortcomings, with Matt Damon giving a great performance as Jean de Carrouges. Damon seems to think that Carrouge was not the best of people, but of all the men in this movie, he was arguably the most respectful. Ben Affleck definitely plays against type by playing one of the most slimy and unjust people of the whole film. Affleck kept him simple and hateable without giving up his signature charisma. Adam Driver as Jacques le Gris is one of the highlights of the film, as he starts off as a nice enough guy with a lot of wit about him. As the film progresses and as we see his point of view more, he turns more into a greedy and delusional bastard that does not know when to stop. Of course, arguably the best performance of the film is Jodie Comer as Lady Marguerite, she plays a straight woman who was more than content with her place in the world portraying her with a gentleness that many other characters lack. But there’s also a somber fierceness under her pleasant demeanor, which is put on full display for all to see after she is brutally attacked. It was surprising not to hear her receive any big award nominations for her role.
The Last Duel is about as epic as they come in terms of scale and storytelling. Yet, this was one of the biggest box offices bombs of 2021 and although director Ridley Scott blamed millennials and Marvel for hurting The Last Duel’s chances at the box office, I doubt those reasons were much of a factor. Besides, I don’t think it will receive many if any award nominations, which is precisely the reason it was created. Despite its very slow pace, it has some of the best performances of 2021, lead by Jodie Comer and Adam Driver respectively, along with an extremely satisfying ending. If you were to check out The Last Duel, I'd recommend having your fast forward button at the ready, as some parts are kinda unnecessary in my opinion.