Film & TV

Medieval Madness

Adam Driver and Matt Damon in The Last Duel. (20th Century Studios)
Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is a violent visit to a strange time, not a #MeToo for the Middle Ages.

For the first hour or so, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel struck me as possibly another Rotten Ridley, in the same category with his terrible costume dramas Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Adam Driver and Matt Damon as medieval French knights, with a blonde Ben Affleck as “Pierre,” the local nobleman they serve? All very odd. Damon was surprisingly good as an Okie in Stillwater, but don’t put him in a suit of armor and ask him to do one of those half-British accents everyone did in 1960s historical epics. As for Driver, who is only slightly less awkward, we saw him try to be medieval in Silence, and it didn’t work so well. Some actors can’t transcend their eras and shouldn’t be asked to do period pieces.

Affleck, however, is so full-on modern in this 1386-set movie that he gives the movie something of the feel of The Great, the intentionally anachronistic and very funny Hulu series about imperial Russia’s Catherine the Great, and his conception of the movie gradually takes over. It’s odd that Affleck and Damon are not on the same page, with the former loose and jokey and dropping F-bombs while the latter is stiff and pained. If I had Damon’s mullet, I’d be in a foul mood, too, but his performance slows down the movie’s progress: In its second half, it turns into an effective black comedy.

The screenplay, based on the novel by Eric Jager, was written by Affleck and Damon — their first script together since they won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting. They brought on the New York filmmaker Nicole Holofcener as a third writer to create a writing structure that imitates what happens on screen: three versions of the same story, two told by men and one by a woman. After a friendship turns poisonous between two knights, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Driver), Le Gris rapes Carrouges’s wife Marguerite (Jodi Comer).

The extremely dark joke driving the story is that it isn’t really a he-said/she-said story; the audience is left in no doubt about whether a rape occurred. It did. But that’s beside the point, because society is so poisoned against women. In a system driven entirely by men’s interests, a rape victim’s best bet is probably to say nothing about it. Even the women around Marguerite urge her to shut up: It’s the 14th century, what did she expect? Talk about a boys’ club. Women are just property.

Thirty years ago, Scott made a feminist rape movie, Thelma & Louise. This one is more surprising, hence more interesting. It takes a while to dawn on the audience that all of these men are awful. Damon? Horrible. Driver? Loathsome. Affleck? Despicable. Kudos to these three for having the guts to play these roles. They’re not lovable anti-heroes, either. They practically invite the audience to throw tomatoes at them. Most movie stars of their stature want above all to be loved — Brad Pitt is the best example — and even if they play villains they want to play the cool kind. These guys are just walking sacks of garbage.

Which is why the climactic duel is so enjoyable: The audience hates both contestants. Duels weren’t namby-pamby affairs involving pistols back then. They started with jousting with pikes and then got down to short swords and daggers. Nasty, brutal, bloody: It’s amazing fun. The marketing for this movie is all wrong: “It’s an Oscar contender!” the ads tell us. No, it isn’t. But who wants to see one of those anyway? The Oscar brand today means slow, depressing message movies. The marketing pitch should be: Fellas, don’t you hate Matt Damon and/or Adam Driver? Here’s a movie in which they chop bits off each other for about 15 minutes. The loser gets stripped naked and hanged by his heels. Highly amusing stuff, and well deserved.

There will be some chatter about whether The Last Duel is a kind of allegory for Hollywood’s abuse of women, given that Affleck and Damon’s mentor Harvey Weinstein is in prison for rape. Is this their way of admitting that they were part of an evil system? When Affleck’s character hears about the rape accusation, his response is simple: “Deny, deny, deny.” And this gets a big laugh. Things never change, do they? No one listens to women. Women who make true accusations are putting themselves in great danger.

I don’t think that’s the takeaway, though. Scott does an excellent job of getting at how utterly bizarre the medieval sensibility was. When Carrouges finds out his wife has been raped, his response is hilarious: Why, he asks, do bad things keep happening to him? Pierre rapes women as a pastime; it’s just a thing you do at a party, while your bros look on and cheer.

Since an all-powerful and all-wise God was universally acknowledged to be pulling all of the strings, having a duel was just a way of revealing the truth. God must guide the hand of the just, so whoever loses is the liar. If Le Gris wins the duel, he is telling the truth, proving that Marguerite is a liar, which means she gets tortured to death by fire. What if her husband just happens to be worse at fighting, though? Too bad. She roasts. God doesn’t make mistakes.

Regardless of whether Affleck and Damon look at the film as a kind of penance, though, it takes place in a moral universe that is completely alien today. No one can possibly walk away from this movie thinking things never change. Standards evolve radically, and usually for the better. Any historical film that is genuinely curious about the past will observe how prodigiously different it was, and this one is absolutely soaked in fascinating strangeness. It works because it doesn’t try to retrofit the facts of the past to fit the assumptions of the present.

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