The Last Duel: Medieval #metoo

Ridley Scott’s latest blood-soaked, mediaeval epic to hit the screen fundamentally fails to deliver a meaningful delve into mediaeval gender politics, but does offer us insight into what needs to change with gendered voices in filmmaking. 

The film is based upon the last recognised legal duel in France in 1386 between Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) and Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) who are settling their dispute of Le Gris’ alleged assault of Jean’s wife, Marguerite (Judy Comer). The winner will be assumed to be the honest party, whilst the loser will face execution for dishonesty (if not already slaughtered in the duel). The trisected narrative reveals the three main characters’ perspectives in the ordeal, each preceded by a title screen displaying ‘the truth according to *insert character here*’, revealing the distorted views that incorporate themselves into this violent tale of debt-settlement. 

The shaky feminist themes of the film are expressed in contemporary caricatures of mediaeval backwardness that are then criticised with unsubtle, meta flourish, something that can perhaps be explained by Hollywood blood-brothers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck acting as co-writers for the screenplay. The Last Duel is the first time that the duo has written together since their 1996 golden-globe winner Good Will Hunting, a fact that becomes clear since they do not reach nearly the same level of nuance that won them their success over 25 years ago. Where Good Will Hunting thrived was its heartfelt originality; the intersecting ideas of masculinity, class, and trauma harmonised with a coherence that was rewarding to watch. Boston is cleverly divided between the gritty down-town and the glittering splendour of Harvard University, an institution that luxuriates in alumni garden parties and hosts a wealth of students that will eventually move on to professions that are realms away from working-class construction workers like Chuckie and Will. As Affleck and Damon drew from their own familial histories and experiences growing up in Boston, it is clear where this film falls short in exploring the psychological ramifications that sexual assault and absolute male authority has on women.

Damon’s portentous performance suggests that this is a film that takes itself entirely seriously in its crusade to convey the atmosphere of hostility and scepticism that surrounds female sexual assault testimonies. Though this premise holds potential, it is lost in its treatment that this is an earth-shattering revelation. It’s clear there is an attempt to justify this film through its parallel to the #metoo movement (such as a scene of Marguerite’s court testimony being met with allegations of her suspected complicity in the assault), but this comes off as a shallow attempt to utilise topical ‘wokeness’ just to squeeze profits from otherwise hollow artistic endeavours, a tactic that is also weaponised by other major film makers (see Disney’s ‘Dumbo’ remake). Additionally, as Affleck and Damon have both had their fair share of controversy in the #metoo movement, we must wonder if they have any right to scripturally contribute to this film at all. Affleck has been accused of sexual misconduct by two fellow actresses since 2017, and Damon’s disastrous ABC interview revealed some tone-deaf takes, with “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation” acting as a befitting epigraph for the film’s elemental understanding of rape culture, past and present.

Jodie Comer’s efforts to achieve the silent, agonised wife, caught between batteries of legal, physical, and sexual conflicts from the men around her is successfully achieved, but is sadly wasted alongside Matt Damon’s performance as the weathered Norman knight with a 1970s mullet and an accent that too often slips from Monty Python-esque English to uptown Boston. The film also disappointingly undermines itself through its Game of Thrones-style of lesbian fetishization that poses as a voyeuristic backdrop to Affleck’s peculiar role of the sex-crazed Count. It is suggested that these indulgent scenes are what pollute the mind of Le Gris and ‘confuse’ him into committing his attack, but its gratuitousness becomes wearisome and indicates a presence of male-gaze that is ironically not aware of itself.

Ultimately, the film fails to commit to any coherent, or more importantly, poignant, narrative thread. Its overarching themes of gender, power, and abuse within a feudal context clash rather than complement, ultimately fizzling out with anticlimactic confusion. The flashes of gory warfare, Hollywood-washed with audio enhanced sword-clashes and choreographed combat, fill the spaces between tedious land ownership disputes and alarmingly long rape-scenes – an aspect that is unfortunately connotative of the rampant notion that we need to observe the spectacle of a woman’s assault in order to believe her testimony.

If we are to assume that The Last Duel attempts to draw parallels between then and today as commentary on our own 21st century convictions, then paradoxically it is one that exposes the short-sightedness of its filmmakers that enlightens us as to why movements like #metoo are needed in the first place.

Featured image: Edith Soto on Flickr.

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