There’s no denying that The Last Duel is an ambitious film. Here, Scott and his crew tell a fascinating historical story through a Rashomon style structure (three distinct chapters cover much of the same story but from different perspectives). It is an interesting choice, clearly setting it apart from your conventional period drama; however, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. This promising structure requires a deft touch, a fluidity, Scott’s direction is rigid and blunt, robbing the film of a lot of its potential power. What could have been a clever rumination on perspective, especially the existence of gendered perspectives (how the masculine gaze diverges from the feminine), ends up being something much less interesting. It is a good film, but one bogged down by bloat and one nowhere near as clever as it needs to be.
The film builds up to the titular last duel, a trial by combat to let God determine the truth. This is the final historical example of this exact practice in this society (Medieval France) and is a really interesting story to tell. Most of the film is about the lead up to this duel, showing us the events that led up to a heinous crime, the crime that is being litigated through bloody conflict due to two hubristic men. By telling this tale three times, from three perspectives (though with key divergences in content and with elements that continue past others), we see small differences, it is about how an event was perceived as opposed to how it actually happened. Though, it is not like in Rashomon where we are seeing a re-enactment of a told story, instead it is strangely nebulous.
We start with a knight named Jean’s perspective of the truth (Jean being played by Matt Damon) and get the groundwork this way. This is our introduction to the content and without the framing device of storytelling, the audience is forced to implicitly canonise this narrative. This is the first time we see things and a lot of the information is ultimately superfluous and not about the eventual case. What could have been a way to get us questioning perception and motives becomes merely a way to sequence a narrative. One could argue that it more makes the point that our perspectives are true to us, and that our lived experiences (not just our stories) diverge even around the same material. Yet, the inflexibility of the linear storytelling (in each chapter) does not help here. Jean’s sequence is notably baggy and it is hard to attach yourself to many of the incidents. A lot of time is spent establishing key points that are actually evoked very quickly. Also, the amount of time taken distances us from the next story, making the actual finding of inconsistencies a harder task. It also devalues the importance of the inconsistencies, as what we are seeing is strangely selective. Certain bits are just not in different narratives, or only shown later. When it comes to the crime the film exists in orbit of, the differences in perspective are so important; however, the film around this moment often feels redundant.
There are smart thematic pairings, though, that accentuate the film’s core. The film is ultimately about how the wife of Jean, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), is raped by Jean’s rival, Jacques (Adam Driver). The legal case around this displays how the crime is treated as a patriarchal concern. Marguerite is not the victim, in the eye of the law; Jean is, due to his wife being regarded as his property. This disgusting perception is foreshadowed nicely by one of the paired moments, as the earlier narrative deals with a literal property dispute between Jean and Jacques, one that also results in legal action. This echoing highlights how these men view the world and allows the film to make a wider point about the toxicity of patriarchal structures. The differing perspectives given on this moment are also worthwhile. However, outside of this there is just too much extraneous detail. The weight of considering perspective differences at key moments is lost under the swathe of narrative, and under the bluntness of the direction. Threading subjectivity is a hard process, Scott needs to present our experience as subjective and fluid, despite them all relating to literal truths. Alas, the filmmaking lacks that subjectivity and fluidity. It is all very formal and restrained, lacking cinematic and stylistic ways to accentuate what needs to be accentuated. There is so much of the language of cinema that could be used to elevate this story yet we are left merely with three linear, overlapping narratives.
Sadly, the film also isn’t a looker. It’s a functional work. The setting is well evoked, though falls into cliché, but the cinematography and visual direction lacks impact. There is a utilitarian feel to the whole production, it is a declarative kind of filmmaking where everything has a clear literal meaning but lacks an additional artistry. It is also sometimes crude, a moment involving a horse is weaponised as a crass echo of an important plot point (failing to do what the property dispute plot line does so well) and is another example of the film falling into the trap of visual sensationalism. Most of the difficult content is decently presented, but it does feel constrained by the lens. One has to wonder if Ridley Scott’s eye is the best through which to view so much of this. The film does a good job of showing these men as abhorrent, and the systems that underpin them as so, but it could do this in a more interesting and less male focused way. Jodie Comer is the star of the film here, giving a stunning performance and having the best chapter. Her chapter is, smartly, just subtitled as ‘the truth’. This is an important and bold statement, making it clear that truth does exist even if we subjectively perceive the world. It also gives truth to victims and fabrication to oppressors, the right way to handle it. But, Comer still exists as a plot device here: a structural feature in a mechanical feeling film. A more dynamic structure that threaded these narratives together over the course of the court case would highlight discrepancies better, shave off the unnecessary baggage and give Comer’s character a stronger voice throughout.
This all being said, the film still works. It is compelling and crafts an engaging society with believable characters. As a piece of world building, it is pulled off well even if not pulled off dextrously or imaginatively. The flat filmmaking works and allows the story to be told. In the end, it just feels limited by its structure, and doesn’t do well enough by it. The missed potential overshadows the film’s achievements but doesn’t nullify them. A competently told version of an important narrative is always worthwhile. The Last Duel is certainly that, even if it doesn’t achieve its ambitions and even if it gets a bit lost along the way.