It’s no surprise that Ridley Scott, who’s made his share of swaggering manly epics, has directed what may be the big screen’s first medieval feminist revenge saga. In addition to his love for men with mighty swords, Scott has an affinity for tough women, women who are prickly and difficult and thinking, not bodacious cartoons. They’re invariably lovely, of course, but then everything in Ridley Scott’s dream world has an exalted shimmer.
Even the mud and blood gleam in “The Last Duel,” an old-style spectacle with a #MeToo twist. Based on the fascinating true story of a lady, a knight and a squire in 14th-century France, the story was big news back in the day and has been retrofitted to contemporary sensibilities by Scott and an unusual troika of screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener and two of the movie’s stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Together, they tear the moldy fig leaf off a Hollywood staple, the Arthurian-style romance — with its chivalric code, knightly virtues and courtly manners — to reveal a mercenary, transactional world of men, women and power. The result is righteously anti-romantic.
Damon, uglied up with slashing facial scars and a comically abject mullet, plays Jean de Carrouges, a nobleman down on his luck who makes ends meet by fighting on behalf of the king. The machinations start early and soon go into overdrive after he marries a younger woman, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), who brightens his life but doesn’t do much for his sour disposition or unfortunate grooming. Vainglorious and petty, his lips screwed into a pucker, Jean settles down with Marguerite but seethes over his friend turned antagonist, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, a juiced-up Basil Rathbone), a social climber aligned with Count Pierre, a licentious power player (Affleck, in debauched glory).
It’s a juicy lineup of familiar characters who are greedier and pettier than those that usually populate historical epics. But there is no noblesse oblige or courtly love, no dragons, witchy women or aggrandizing British accents. Instead, there are debts, grudges, fights, liaisons, an occasional naked nymph and men endlessly jockeying for position. Jean marries Marguerite to boost his prestige and wealth; Jacques enriches himself by currying favor with Pierre. For her part, Marguerite is passed from father to husband, who later, in a startling moment, commands her to kiss Jacques in public as evidence of Jean’s resumed good will toward his frenemy. It’s a catastrophic gesture.
The story’s action is visceral and relentless; the atmosphere gray and thick with intrigue. Scott likes to throw a lot on the screen — the movie churns with roaring men, galloping horses, shrieking minions — which can clutter up a story but here creates insistent momentum. This churn throws the quieter bits into relief, giving you room to breathe and the characters time to scheme. These lulls also allow the filmmakers to lay out some of the brute details of everyday life in the Middle Ages, even for a noble like Jean who slogs off to war for money. In this world of homosocial relations, men continually and often violently negotiate their place among other men, and always for gain.
The script is solid, shrewd and fairly faithful to its source material, Eric Jager’s nonfiction page-turner “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat.” The crime in question was the alleged rape in 1386 of the wife of one noble by another of lesser rank. Her husband presented the case to Charles VI, demanding the right to a judicial duel, or trial by combat. If the husband wins it ostensibly proves the truth of his claim, a.k.a. God’s will. Die or yield, he is guilty; if he survives, he will be hanged, and his wife burned alive. As Jager emphasizes, rape was a crime in medieval Europe, even punishable by death, but it wasn’t a crime against the woman but her male guardian.
Jager gives the three figures at the center of this drama their due, although, like the medieval text that inspired him, his account is weighted toward the dueling noblemen. The movie tries to more emphatically foreground Marguerite by making her a relatively equal participant in her own tragedy. It does this on a structural level by dividing the story into chapters and placing her version of events alongside those of the two men: he said, he said, she said. This splitting evokes “Rashomon,” in which various characters narrate the same crime — also a rape — from conflicting points of view, creating a sense of relative truth. But there’s no such ambiguity in “The Last Duel.”
Rape as a plot device has a long, grotesque history; it’s useful for metaphors and shocks but rarely has anything to do with women, their bodies or pain. In presenting Marguerite’s point of view — everything shifts meaningfully in her version, including how she sees her husband and the assault — “The Last Duel” seeks to upend that tradition. It doesn’t fully succeed and the movie still leans toward the men, their actions and stratagems. Partly this is a problem of history. As a 14th-century woman, Marguerite is bred to acquiesce and, for the most part, is acted upon rather than acts. While the movie is feminist in intent and in meaning, and though she’s given narrative time, she remains frustratingly opaque, without the inner life to balance the busily thrashing men.
“The Last Duel” works best as an autopsy of corrosive male power, which creates a certain amount of unresolved tension given how much Scott enjoys putting that power on display, including during the duel. The movie is weirdly entertaining, but the world it presents, despite its flourishes of comedy, is cold, hard and unforgiving. Few come out looking good, not the antagonists or giggly king (Alex Lawther), the conniving clergyman or Jean’s unsympathetic mother (Harriet Walter), a proxy for every woman who’s ever told other women to shut up and take it. Marguerite didn’t, but however blurrily history remembers her, she made her mark with a vengeance.
The Last Duel
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes. In theaters.