Medieval History Is Brutal and Surprisingly Funny in Ridley Scott's 'The Last Duel'
The movie, written in part by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, is shockingly astute.
The silly hair was sort of the point.
When photos emerged of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the set of The Last Duel, the Ridley Scott medieval epic which the Boston boys co-wrote, their laughable wigs and false facial hair were the source of much tittering online. Were they supposed to look this goofy? Turns out the answer was yes. The Last Duel is a film, above all else, about the foolishness of men.
It's a strange, long horror comedy about how women in the 14th century were at the mercy of dudes who were vain, petty, and cruel, only concerned with their own status even when someone's life is at stake. For a two-and-half-hour movie centered around a rape and a violent battle, it's awfully funny, but that humor only serves its point: It makes the men who think they are the heroes of this tale seem puny and vile, just as they are.
The Last Duel seems bound to be controversial, not in the least because both Damon and Affleck been called out for behavior in the #MeToo movement—Damon for comments and Affleck for groping. To put it mildly: They do not seem like the best candidates for adapting this historical event. For some, their mere involvement will be impossible to ignore. And yet, The Last Duel works as a film, in part because they made themselves look so ludicrous. On top of that, Damon and Affleck also wisely chose to hand over some of the writing duties to filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, best known for her savvy looks at modern life in films like Enough Said and Friends with Money.
Based on Eric Jager's book detailing the final duel ever to take place in medieval France, Scott splits The Last Duel into three parts. The first tells the story from the perspective of Jean de Carrouges (Damon), a soldier who considers himself a valiant hero, who, at the start of the narrative, is close friends with Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), having fought alongside one another in battle. Nagged by debt, De Carrouges marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), daughter of a man many consider traitorous, to increase his wealth. When de Carrouges is in Paris on business after a long campaign in Scotland, Le Gris rapes Marguerite in her home. Instead of staying quiet like so many women in her time and status would, Marguerite speaks out, and de Carrouges resolves to let "God" decide who is in the right by challenging Le Gris to a duel to the death.
From de Carrouges' perspective, he is acting nobly, but each subsequent chapter of the film chips away at that notion. Le Gris is even less honorable than de Carrouges, who he pities while he works for the Count Pierre (Affleck), a drunken lech with a penchant for partying. Le Gris' section does not absolve him of any crimes, instead showing how a man like that, an undeniable rapist, can justify his despicable actions to himself. That's because the film's final portion, written by Holofcener, is handed over to Marguerite, painting the crime in no uncertain terms. The Last Duel is ultimately not about how differing perspectives can make audiences question the very nature of truth, but how people in power (namely, men) are blind to the obvious.
Damon has always been best in roles as overly ambitious strivers who are out of their depths—from his work as con artist Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley to the smug double agent he plays in The Departed—and de Carrouges capitalizes on that specific element of his talent. De Carrouges is a tool who doesn't know he is such, and Damon plays him with a blundering sense of righteousness. Driver, meanwhile, cloaks Le Gris' villainy in an air of eerie relatability and charm that lets him get away with heinous acts. Both are put to shame by Comer as Marguerite, who flourishes as the movie swings in her direction and she brings warmth and resoluteness to a character who knows that everything is working against her.
But it's Affleck who steals the movie as Pierre, delivering lines like "take your fucking pants off" and throwing an abacus while yelling "recalculate." It's a turn that finds Affleck in a mode we haven't seen him in since Shakespeare in Love: the braggadocious idiot, high on his own supply. Affleck's performance should stick out like a sore thumb, drilling into the heart of the wildly ambitious tone of this movie.
Scott fills the frames with brutality. There are moments of shockingly gnarly violence in addition to the horrifying act that Marguerite endures, which is treated as the monstrosity it is. But the humor serves as a reminder that the humans of the past were not stoic artifacts whose evil is relegated to history. They were just as shitty as the bad men of today who get away doing with doing terrible things and facing little consequence. Like a bad wig, they are to be mocked.