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The Last Duel

****
2021

‘…the much delayed The Last Duel is worth highlighting for admirers of Ridley Scott’s storytelling brand; it’s probably his best film in two decades…’

Ridley Scott’s debut feature was The Duellists, a remarkable film that put the ad-man into the box seat when it comes to Hollywood; Alien and Blade Runner were just around the corner. A Joseph Conrad adaptation set during the Napoleonic Wars, The Duellists is an atmospheric story that might have been a career pinnacle for most directors, but for Scott, it was just a calling card. Hits like Thelma and Louise or Gladiator couldn’t be more different, but demonstrate an innate grasp of storytelling. House of Gucci is on the way, but the much delayed The Last Duel is worth highlighting for admirers of Ridley Scott’s storytelling brand; it’s probably his best film in two decades.

The cast are a big draw; Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver and hot property du jour, Jodie Comer. But none of the big stars are doing what you expect here. Gaunt of appearance and with a shock of blonde hair, Affleck plays Count Pierre d’Alençon, a sexed-up power broker in 14th century France. His right hand man is Jacques Le Gris (Driver), a headstrong knight with a personally gratifying notion of chivalry that the louche d’Alençon does little to dissuade. Into their fetid orbit come Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and his new wife Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), and the two men, drunk on their own power, decide to wield their powers with selfish impunity. Rashomon-style, we see events unfold from three points of view, d’Alençon, Le Gris and Marguerite, with a canny subtitle indicating that the female view is the one that holds the most dramatic veracity.

Scott has had no shortage of strong female characters, Ripley in Alien, Thelma and Louise and even GI Jane, but giving over The Last Duel’s climax to a female POV is quite a gamble when playing with the historical epic genre which is traditionally a male dominated one. We’ve seen the cliché in epics where a nobleman seeks revenge for the rape of his wife, but The Last Duel doubles-down on an unsavoury plot-point, puts the female victim centre stage and gives her a voice. So while The Last Duel opens and closes with the expected man to man confrontations, we’re left with a deliberate sense that the much-prized honour that’s being so intensely fought for has been splintered and damaged in transit.

That’s a subversive notion for a big, star-packed epic, but Scott, working with Nicole Holofcener will confound those who seek to label his cinematic style with this film. By choosing Marguarrite’s story as the primary text, and subverting the self-centred stories told by the men, Scott turns cinematic traditions on their heads. The leads all seem to enjoy playing against type, but the real big news here is Comer, who initially seems wasted in a secondary part, but takes control of the narrative and centres it with some skill. While The Last Duel is loaded with know-how, with creative lighting, locations, excellent secondary cast and some brutal action when it comes, it’s also a bookend with The Duellists that reflects the very different times of its making. The rivalry between men has been explored many times, but never like this; Scott is still a cutting edge force in cinema, and The Last Duel is a daring, thought-provoking film that risks being caviar to the general.

The Last Duel is out in UK and US cinemas from Oct 15th 2021.

Thanks to Disney for access to this film.

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  1. This is EXACTLY the type of film I’ve been waiting for…..I will be masking up, slathering myself in hand sanitizer, and getting my butt in a theater seat the night this releases in my area!!!!!

    I am nuts for 1) big historical epics 2) female pov 3) men fighting for a woman, and 4) Thelma and Louise

    LET’S GO!

    • 4 out of four, this is the correct answer! Get your hazmat suit on and see it, as I did, not a big screen, because that’s how it’s meant to be seen. If these are the things you look for in a film, I think you’ll get everything you need….

  2. you gave this very fine movie with very fine acting, photo ops, and pacing the recognition it deserves–without revealing the outcome! I watched the film knowing the historic background written about the folks upon whom the story turns/plot pivots and the rendering by Jager. Still I was tickled by the ending and voice given to Comer, proving there is always 3 sides to a coin, and the overlooked 3rd side has the edge.
    Only negative was Afleck’s bad dye job/wig, Damon’s messy mullet, and a few ill fitting props. Some scenes were so realistic, I was glad sensorama hadn’t caught on (olefactory units were put underneath seats and odors released…). The art of storytelling shines thru and so does your encyclopedia knowledge of film and film makers, your expert ability to promote the exactly right word at the exactly right point in the review, and your love of what you do. Let’s watch it again!

    • I’d be happy to watch this again, particularly when you know where it’s going. I’m up to speed on Comer, and for the first hour, was thinking; promising female actor wasted again. And then the story flips for the better…and I was keen to avoid the lazy critic thing of writing about our offscreen knowledge of Affleck and Damon, or mocking their hair jobs, which are certainly outlandish. But knights and squires could be a foppish bunch, so vanity provides an excuse for these horrendous barnets. I’ll return to this film for sure, and I’m pleased to give Scott his due for creating an original kind of epic that we’ve simply not seen before.

  3. I’d like to see this for the possible Rashomon references. I like Adam Driver and I’m intrigued by what Jodie Comer might bring to this kind of narrative. I’m wary of Ridley Scott and I’ve been put off by his bad films. G. I. Jane was very poor. Teaming up with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck seems a bad idea. Neither have ever done anything for me. But your review suggests this might be a reformed Ridley? I’m surprised by the way that nobody mentions any of the French medieval film narratives that place women at the centre of the story. I remember the impact made by Walerian Borowczyk’s Blanche (France 1971). Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (2009) is also interesting.

    I fear, however, that I won’t get to see the Last Duel for some time. I’m not back in cinemas yet and Disney+ is a definite no for me. I don’t think Disney will allow their films to screen on any other platform in the current distribution ecology.

    • You know, I think there’s an argument for bring back the old rep cinemas from the 80’s and 90’s, cheap prices, empty halls, they’d be perfect now, because there’s a 18 month backlog of films that really should be seen in the cinema. I’m just back from Dune, and there’s no way that film should be seen for the first time at home, it’s totally a cinema piece. Scott has made some clonkers, his Robin Hood drained my will to live. And I’ll happily take your recommends for further viewing, I’m a big Borowxzyk fan, but have not seen Blanche. I feared a bloated macho epic, but I do think that Scott sharpened his tools before returning to the fray, and this film was way better than the trailer suggested. Hope you do get to see it on the big screen. My guess is that it’ll be 45 days before it appears on Disney +, and 90 before it hits other viewing platforms.

    • Hey Susan, I’ve read some reviews since that seem to have an axe to grind. I don’t, I really do try to say what I see, so I really appreciate you taking the time to leave such a positive comment. Thanks!

  4. For the most part, who directs a film has almost no influence on whether I’ll choose to watch it or not. I think the only director I watch out for is Tarantino because of the profanity and over the top violence.

          • Well, Alien anyway. I was not a fan of “Do Androids….” so the movie has a lot of baggage to overcome. Maybe once I’ve watched Blade 2 or 3 more times I might like it. No promises though.

            Don’t get me wrong, I am not unaware of the Directorial Role in a film. It just doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as it seems to do for you.

            • I’ve got a professional interest that parts of the viewing public choose not to have, and that makes sense. Scott has a substantial canon of work, and if you want to get involved, there are connections and parallels that shed further light on the texts. But I’m catering for those who want to know more, and I’d hate to feel that I was forcing my world view on anyone. Take it or leave it. The vast majority of the world leave it, but I appreciate the interest of those who take the time to read and comment.

    • Ridley Scott mean anything to you? Seen anything by him? There’s lots of puffed up empty epics, but this isn’t one of them. Get thee to a library, and reserve it now!

      • To be honest, Ridley hasn’t meant much to me in a long time. You say this is his best work in twenty years, which says something. I still can’t forgive him for what he did to the Alien franchise, and that was his baby.

        The trailer does kind of scream “puffed-up empty epic” to me.

        Heading off to the library now, but not to put a reserve in on this.

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