Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
USA/United Kingdom, 2021. 20th Century Studios, Pearl Street Films, Scott Free Productions, TSG Entertainment. Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, based on the book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, James Flynn, Jennifer Fox, Nicole Holofcener, Morgan O’Sullivan, Ridley Scott, Kevin J. Walsh. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. Production Design by Arthur Max. Costume Design by Janty Yates. Film Editing by Claire Simpson.
The same story is repeated three times and the notion of truth is examined by director Ridley Scott, who turns a true-life case that took place in fourteenth-century France into a medieval Rashomon featuring not-so-chivalrous knights, bold maidens and a society that has no idea what to do with either of them. In the first narrative, the noble knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon in the world’s most unfortunate mullet) has his ego singed when he learns that his overlord the Count Pierre D’Alençon (Ben Affleck as a shock blonde) has become best buddies with his squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) and has gifted him an estate that was meant for de Carrouges. The estate belonged to the father of the woman de Carrouges has just married, Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), and was part of her dowry which he needs to restore his cash-poor realm, but D’Alençon has already taken it as payment for Marguerite’s father’s back taxes and, in a whimsical moment of generosity, given it to Le Gris.
De Carrouges tries to sue but is unsuccessful, making his relationship with both men difficult, then when he returns from Paris to collect money owed him by the French treasury for his services on the battlefield in Scotland, his wife informs of a very distressing event: while she was alone in their fortress, Le Gris forced his way into their home and raped her. In De Carrouges’s version, his loving bond with his wife, with whom he is always gentle and generous, prompts him to believe her accusation and demand justice, and since knowing that a court ruled by D’Alençon will be slanted in favour of the defendant, he insists that he fight his enemy in a duel in which “God” will decide the truth. We then see the version as told by Le Gris, in which his gifts from D’Alençon are merely the result of two men finding a genuine bond of friendship, and in which his dealings with Marguerite involve their unavoidable lust for each other; yes, he did come to her house when she was alone, but her protestations were merely those of an honourable woman, the old “her lips said no but her eyes said yes” defense.
As Scott is not nearly so bold a dreamer as Akira Kurosawa, we are not treated to the presence of supernatural testimony from a ghost, so for the third and last part, we go naturally to the perspective of the woman in question, in which the facts are the same but the tenor with which they play out is very different: she is treated with coarse indifference by her husband, his standing up for her honour is in the name of his own pride (rape in this time and place is a crime against a man’s property, after all, not against a woman’s body) and her encounter with Le Gris is anything but passionate or covertly consensual but actually degrading and violent. These strands of truth lead to the final showdown of the title, which de Carrouges insists, despite sage advice, is the only way to make sure the truth is known for the entire nation to see. By the time we reach this moment of truth, the couple have placed themselves in a great deal of danger, she having risked making a mockery of herself by speaking out about her assault and subjecting herself to the indignity of the court’s examination, and he bringing gossip and shame upon his good name and, in fighting this duel, risking his own mortal life.
Scott hasn’t always done very well with his movies set in the days of cloaks and swords, films like Robin Hood and Kingdom Of Heaven lack the panache of his best works and one fears another exercise in 1492-level drudgery with this one, but take heart ye nervous viewers, this is an exciting and enveloping drama enriched by intelligent writing and very nuanced moralizing. Affleck and Damon, collaborating on a screenplay for the first time since their Oscar-winning work on Good Will Hunting (with Nicole Holofcener brought on, reportedly, to round out the female perspective) manage to present the triple narrative with enough subtle differences to make for a fascinating exercise in the impossibility of moral certainty. There are no heroes or villains in this story, we’re not rooting for a bad guy’s death or a good guy’s victory, and there is no such thing as truth in this film’s world either, only a society’s decision to favour one person’s perspective over another’s because of rigid ideas of gender and class; if Marguerite’s accusations involve an issue that her society does not want to understand (or that, as her severe mother-in-law Harriet Walter explains to her, is something that one must simply live with), it’s possible that there is no such thing as justice either. Leaving things up to as vague a concept as the higher power of God is more or less the yearning for certainty in a world that provides none, and at the end of the day all that is left is the enthusiasm of a crowd that ascribes moral victory to the person who is left standing at the end of a bloody showdown.
Scott delivers one of his most intelligent films in years, maintaining control of the film’s robust structure while allowing the rich personalities of his characters to stand out even among all the visual splendor of the sumptuous production and costume design.