CONTENT WARNING: The Last Duel contains scenes of the same rape in two different sequences.
The Last Duel is the historically based story of a noble man forcing himself upon another noble man's wife. The film is split into three chapters. The noble man's, the accused rapist, and the noble man's wife. Each claims their story is the absolute truth of the matter. The fate of the noble man and woman as well as the accused is to be decided in a duel to the death between the two men. The winner of the duel being the one who told the truth. The film stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Marton Csokas, Nathaniel Parker, Tallulah Haddon, Adam Nagatis, Michael McElhatton, Zeljko Ivanek, and Ben Affleck. The film is written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener and directed by Ridley Scott.
As a Rashōmon style story with three sides telling their truths, The Last Duel is a well executed and strikingly contemporary medieval court room drama. It's true that very few scenes are in the courtroom, but based on the fact the three chapters are the testimony of the three leads, it's structured like that for us with the sentencing being the final act.
I love the chapter structure. The first, all about Sir Jean de Carrouges' truth is about how he feels like everything he is owed is stolen from him, that the world is conspiring against him despite his perception he is the best man there is. The camera is filled with a noble silver and blue light because he is a man who believes in honor above all things and that it and duty will make a man's life and name. His truth is tinted by the fact he doesn't realize no one likes him.
The second chapter is Jaques Le Gris' truth. In it he is erudite and confident. It's filtered through brightness, warmth and color. He is the world's best lover, God's gift to all women and the best of friends to all around him. What is unique about this perspective is that it gets us into the mind of a man who could do something so reprehensible as to rape someone. We see the truly innocent glances, the kindnesses and innocuous conversation perverted, twisted and made into the familiar refrain of the abuser that, "[the victim] wanted it."
This segues into the final truth, the most brilliant of the chapters, which is Maguerite's perspective. This chapter is gray, dull, lifeless and dour in hue. Maguerite's life is not like the lives the men perceive their's to be. She sees the shit in the streets and the bullshit of these men. Maguerite is showing us the historical context the the men refuse to see. She's also telling her story in a refrain that is all too common even in our modern age.
The most audacious and insightful stroke are the two versions of the assault as told by the two parties who were present. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and director Ridley Scott pull off the scenes without either being alluring, which can sometimes happen when these scenes are interpreted by the male gaze. They match the movements almost entirely from scene to scene and Wolski even pulls off a trick of matching them to an earlier scene of sex play between Le Gris and another lady that in Le Gris' mind, was another example of the lady being demure, not that she didn't actually want to have sex with him.
A lot of credit for these two scenes' seamless nature has to be given to editor Claire Simpson. Simpson matches the scenes beat for beat in a near perfect mirror. Yet, she also expresses the perspective of the person telling their version of the truth. She keeps the shots long on Le Gris as we are in his perspective and more of Maguerite's terror as we are watching her painful experience. Simpson did an incredible job matching the earlier scenes that play out longer in subsequent perspectives as well. The film is fabulously cohesive because of her work.
What I have trouble with is what I struggle with, with many of Ridley Scott's sword and armor epics. It's the multiple medieval battle scenes. Though, here the bloody, gruesome battles feel even more extraneous. I understand they establish vital parts of who Le Gris and Carrouges think they are, but the film would have been better with the brutal, vicious duel being the bloodiest and most harrowing part of the film.
I dare say Affleck and Damon could be headed to their second screenwriting Oscars with this awesome story. All of the elements are working to create something truly magical on screen. The acting is stellar, the story is superb, and the idea that nearly seven hundred years after the events depicted in this film that women are still far more scrutinized and patronized when they accuse a man of rape or assault is infuriating and necessary to be told. If you're a fan of medieval films and complicated truths that make for excellent drama, you should seek out The Last Duel it is well worth it on the big screen.