Venice Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘The Last Duel’

Everyone has their own truth, as they say, but some of those truths are considerably truer than others. Old pals Matt Damon and Ben Affleck join forces with established indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener to adapt a true story – that of Marguerite de Carrouges, a 14th century French noblewoman who was raped by an old friend of her husband’s – and tell it from three different angles in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. A form inspired by the great Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, those angles express each person’s understanding – or wishful thinking – about the truth and its consequences.

Jean de Carrouges (Damon), a fighting man wronged by someone he has long regarded as treacherous, learns his wife has been raped and seeks vengeance. The film’s first chapter, which has the familiar feel of a Saturday afternoon historical romance, belongs to him. Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) a libertine and favored fixer and drinking partner to the local lord (Ben Affleck), is confounded to see his spurious good name dragged through the mud as Marguerite publicly accuses him. He knew she was up for it. “Of course, she put up the customary objections. She is a lady,” he shrugs. To him belongs the second part.

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And then there is the story given voice by Marguerite (Jodie Comer), traded into marriage by her father, treated as an agreeable pitstop – on good days, or perhaps only in his version of events – by her husband and then reviled as a temptress, liar and manipulator of men when she dares to speak of these things about which more judicious women remain decorously silent. Nobody has ever bothered in the past to notice her truth: the way she grits her teeth as she endures her husband’s attentions, her unused intelligence, her loneliness on an isolated estate. So far, so much medieval #MeToo. It is all enormously well-intentioned.

The Last Duel, which is world premiering out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, is also very handsomely presented. There is no mistaking who is calling the shots here. Arise, Sir Ridley! Here be massive vistas, elaborately crenellated castles that loom suddenly into view and a giddying variety of angles provided by the multiple cameras he trains on every scene. There are tremendous fighting sequences, with knights in armor and their horses rolling in the dirt, sometimes in slow motion, hacking at each other with broadswords. Life is nasty, brutish and usually short, but veiled here with the gentle mistiness of long ago.

See, too, Scott’s trademark vertiginous crane shots, in which the camera soars skywards to look down on a teeming jousting arena or a medieval village reconstructed as meticulously as the hand-painted signals and sidings on an electric train set. Descending rapidly to ground level with another swoop of the crane, we catch sight of a goose girl urging her unruly flock across a boggy yard; pigs are rooting on the opposite side on the other side of the screen. In a Ridley Scott film, every detail is part of a very big picture, the kind of big picture that will never get small.

But while it may be churlish to say it, there is also a nagging sense that this is all the backdrop to a story about things we already know – and which we are then being told three times over, into the bargain. Haven’t we all learned at school that women in the Middle Ages (and for centuries afterwards) were the legal property of their male guardians, making the rape of a woman a crime against the responsible man? There is a moment when this is delivered as a shocking truth, but it isn’t a shock. We are just waiting for the characters on screen to catch up with us.

That wouldn’t matter if there were more subtlety or nuance in the telling, some delving into the texture of these distant lives, something that makes us gasp with recognition that yes, this is what it was like and this is how it felt. Rashomon may have inspired the story, but this is like the paper that Rashomon came wrapped in, a costume drama with modern relevance detailed in a highlighter pen. Everyone is locked up in the tragedy of their circumstances, but you don’t feel it; Scott ensures that events rollick along in triplicate too briskly to be bogged down in sentiment. All the way to the last duel itself – which is, of course, spectacular.

The Last Duel hits U.S. theaters on October 15 via Disney’s 20th Century Studios.

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