The Last Duel (2021) is a historical drama, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, based on the 2004 book by Eric Jager, and stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, and Ben Affleck. Set in Medieval France, the movie depicts the events that lead to the last judicial duel (officially recognized at least) in France, in which knight Jean De Carrouges (Damon) challenges squire Jacques Le Gris (Driver) after the former’s wife Marguerite (Comer) accuses the latter of rape. As anticipated, this is a powerful and engrossing drama with strong performances (particularly from Comer and Driver), excellent writing, and wonderful production values; it also flopped pretty hard, only managing a return of 30 million from a 100 million budget that does not include marketing or other costs.
Before I get into that, I want to talk about the movie first because a lot of the discussion surrounding the movie is about comments from Scott or reasons why it financially failed (which are important), but they shift the focus on where it should be for movie buffs; on the quality of the movie. My main concern going into the movie was that it would fail to find a balance in its subject matter, meaning contemporary events could have made the story focus on particular aspects of the historical event or particular characters, but thankfully this is not the case. The movie is told from three perspectives; Jean’s, Jacques’s, and Marguerite’s version of the events that lead to the court case and, subsequently, the duel. During these perspectives, Scott (working with a wonderful script) does a brilliant job in conveying the characters’ traits and what they find to be important, as well as creating versions of the same event with the same “facts” yet with different representations of them; I’ve seen people comment on the ambiguity or the validity of the “facts”, but I’ve found that the “objectively true” version of them is pretty clear in this adaptation (I have not read the book, so I don’t know how they are presented there). What changes – and what I found to be the strongest aspect of the writing – is the character’s viewpoint and what they find important to mention, to focus on, to exaggerate a bit on, and how they see other characters. As an example, Jean’s version is more focused on honor and chivalry being traits associated with one’s prowess in combat and bravery in the face of danger; his story has moments of him being a captain to soldiers, leading the charge into battle, fighting wars and sustaining injuries for his king. In contrast, Jacques’ version has little to do with those events, even though his story is mostly about those same elements; he too sees himself as a noble and honorable man that fights for his king, but he focuses on how he used his accounting skills to collect debts that would have been lost in the chaos. What makes these perspectives engaging are the moments where the characters are exposed by contradictions, emission of events, and Marguerite’s version of the truth. This is what a big component of this movie is: A depiction of how the “truth” is subjective and “facts” being easily manipulated to advance a bias. That is not an absolute statement, but it is a real historical event where sworn testimonies of the same events led to such different interpretations and depictions of the events that it is still debated on what is truthful and what is a lie.
The other meaningful component of this movie is the systemic oppression of women during that time period. Marguerite’s account of the truth – alongside the other two perspectives – creates a bleak and discouraging depiction of what it meant to be a woman during that time period, not only as a citizen of France but also as a wife, a daughter, a person. I was worried this would have felt too forced of a message or that Marguerite would have been given “stoic” qualities rather than humane ones; I was wrong. A lot of these conclusions are made by connecting the dots or revealed by the absence of certain events from previous versions of the “truth” or by placing an emphasis on certain events. Long story short – and with a few exceptions – I never felt like this message was a heavy-handed one that was forced or repeated/told over and over again. A lot of that has to do with Scott getting the best out of Driver and Comer, as they both give fantastic performances. In particular, Driver has found his true calling as a character that has a likeability to him, before slowly revealing the sinister and discomforting aspects of his character, while Comer manages to make her character feel human and strong, while also feeling of the time (which were treated as anything but). Beyond the strong performances, Scott channels his Kingdom of Heaven motifs with a suitably gritty, dirty, and bloody depiction of Medieval times, but this is one of my favorite ones yet; there is a visceral impact and undeniable force in each swing of the sword or of each connecting punch; there is “filthy” cleanliness to the upper class and regular filthiness to the poor. Even if the movie is mostly a character study, the scenes of violence and combat (like the titular duel) are, at times, epic in scale and brutally depicted; the duel between Jean and Jacque being a particular highlight of great cinematography and directing, as well as a scene that has the audience at the edge of their seat. Lastly, Harry Gregson-Williams did a great job on the musical score, as he has always done with projects he takes on.
In fact, in all aspects, everyone associated with the production did an excellent job with only minor observations and nitpicks to point out as issues. For example, overall, I think the pacing is really well-handled, but it could have had a few scenes shortened to make the runtime more digestible; likewise, there are a few elements that are not given enough information to be completely understood or be ambiguous for the reasons they were meant to be (specifically, a decision Jean’s mother makes and the state of Jean’s estate when the incident takes place). However, critics and fans alike praised this movie and it has a very respectable reputation but it still bombed at the box office; I missed it at the cinemas, as did many movie buffs, so the question is “why?”. My reasons were straightforward; at the time, it was up against Shang Chi and my friends wanted to see that one; it only played for a week and a half, so by the time we saw a trailer and we knew it was at the theater, it was gone and replaced by the new Bond movie. Taking a more ‘worldwide’ view though, it is apparent that there were other factors at play that have plagued similar productions. People are less willing to pay the price of a movie ticket and snacks for a movie that is not part of their favorite/loved franchise and would much rather wait for it to be on streaming. They are also less likely to visit a theater during a pandemic to see a movie unless it has something (whether that is the hype/FOMO feeling or extraordinary special effects) that they would miss if they skip the theater. Then, there’s the marketing behind The Last Duel which was drowned out by bigger and louder campaigns and also showcased the movie’s most exciting moments to sell an action-thriller-like experience that the movie is definitely not. This is my most contentious belief when it comes to movies of this ilk and it’s the one thing, I believe to be true but hate it wholeheartedly; just like with Blade Runner 2049, the budget is too big for the audience pool The Last Duel would have. Obviously, this is a decision made before the pandemic, but a budget of 100 million is too high an ask for this type of movie to make a profit on. As a movie buff, I’d love for Ridley Scott and any other creative legend to never have budget concerns, especially since he made cinematic history. However, as a business decision purely it was a risky one; recent medieval-styled movies have been released on streaming (and as such are not a fair comparison), but the last one I can recall was Macbeth (2015) and it only grossed 16 million.
Regardless of all that, I’m glad this movie exists because it is excellent and I hope that marketing campaigns get better when it comes to movies like this one, decisions are made with more clarity, expectations are properly set, and more similar movies can get made despite the financial disappointment of this one. It’s a shame that despite all the talent on display and all the efforts of an excellent crew and staff, what most people will remember about The Last Duel are the comments of the director and the huge financial flop it was; hopefully, with time, those will go away and what will remain is the brilliance of this movie and a painful lesson learned.