At the height of his mastery, the director delivers the brutal and splendid story of a medieval news item, which resonates more than ever in the present by encapsulating all the violence in the world.
Without having seen The Last Duel, we said to ourselves, in the penultimate issue of Première, that Ridley Scott could be one of the last classic filmmakers. Now that we have seen The Last Duel, we can say so without being too wrong. Yes, Ridley Scott is indeed a classic filmmaker, and The Last Duel is a classic movie. In the sense that the filmmaker, like his film, adheres to a tradition, and that this adhesion could be synonymous with excellence. The Last Duel adheres to the tradition of cinema as a total art, where the spectacular and the reflection can – and must – exist together. Okay, that’s enough for the theory: The Last Duel, classic movie, is a fucking great movie. The film is inspired by a true story (or rather by the account made of it by the academic Eric Jager in a book “ready-to-adapt”), that of the last judicial duel, framed by the law, having had place in France; it was in December 1386, and the knight Jean de Carrouges facing to death a squire, Jacques Le Gris, the former accusing the latter of having raped his wife Marguerite. If Jean wins, Jacques is guilty, and if Jacques wins, Marguerite will be burned alive. It is the “judgment of God”. It will obviously be necessary to wait until the very end of the film to attend this “last duel”, while the film adopts a structure in three chapters each espousing the point of view of one of the three protagonists of the affair. And this is where the film gets exciting.
The Last Duel: how Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener shared the script
This process is not a simple gimmick imitating the Rashomon of Kurosawa, to relativize the truth by changing points of view. We begin with the story of Jean – perfectly embodied by an aged and wounded Matt Damon – an honorable warrior, shady, penniless, and overwhelmed by the intrigues of courtiers, who makes an interested marriage to extend his domain and save the honor of his family. But after the story of Jacques, and finally that of Marguerite, this beautiful image deconstructs itself, decomposes before our eyes. Jean appears as a man as violent as Jacques. Knights like John are here war professionals, who fight not for abstract notions like freedom or honor but for money and survival. The few battle scenes, of incredible brutality plunge us into mud and blood, emphasizing movements and maneuvers as worthy of Braveheart (limbs cut ad nauseam) than Game Of Thrones (treacherous blows and very dirty stratagems): this image where Damon impales an enemy on the hilt of his sword shows that we are not at the court of King Arthur, in an idealized Middle Ages. There is nothing wrong with the overpowering technique of the film (another classic trait) and the cinematic power of the re-enactment of France at the end of the 14th century, but The Last Duel thus opens another path for Scott than that of his passionate Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings, with its crooks who become heroes and prophets to found the law.
The Last Duel: It’s Matt Damon Vs. Adam Driver in the opening scene!
No, the time is no longer for heroism, for the great bellicose speeches of Gladiator, Where Kingdom of Heaven, those great romantic films of which The Last Duel would be the exact reflection -normal, since the romantic and the classic are opposed. Put them in the same movie, and they fight to the death. “There is only money, or no money”, writes Don Winslow in The Power of the Dog, his fabulous novel about cartels that Scott almost adapted, “there is only power, or the absence of power”. “Only the power of men counts”, says Marguerite’s mother-in-law in a terrifying scene where she admits to having been raped too and affirms that we have to deal with it, that things are like this and that nothing can be changed. The Last Duel Even though it is classic, it is a film in the present, in which the final explosion of violence exorcises nothing, heals nothing, does not even rejoice. Only the power of men remains. And a definitely huge film, which seems to contain all the violence in the world.