The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men.
Honor bought with blood and justice sold to the highest bidder. Power feeding into power feeding into power, each tier of the hierarchy building with increased insatiable lust to abuse and spit on those below them, working its way up to a gleefully malicious boy king, looking on with a grin as his subjects spill blood in his name. A game played with people’s lives like disposable pieces on a board, shrugging off the suffering of the poor and treating women as commodified property. The shining armor grows increasingly dull and covered in scum and grime as the spiraling madness unfolds and reveals its truly hateful center. A world void of empathy leaves nothing but a hopeless, haunting atmosphere in its wake, an atmosphere that has reverberated for 600 years beyond this most gruesome display of vile action.
The Last Duel is a herculean effort, a historical epic that pulls no punches and defies you to see any good in the eyes of its men. Conjuring scores of eastern influences from the shifting perspectives of Rashomon (1950) to the deconstruction of legend in both Harakiri (1962) and Kuroneko (1968), Ridley Scott aims to tear down the infallible image of knights in shining armor and present them as the bloodthirsty, self-serving men they really were. Without preamble or fuss, the film opens with a definitive set of expectations as a title card fades onto the screen. “Part 1: The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” the film informs, before launching headfirst into a gritty bloodbath of battle. It is his perspective, and the stoic Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) displays himself as steadfastly loyal to the crown he serves, hungry to prove himself as a vicious warrior and strong leader alike, yet despite his constant efforts and the scars he bears for his king he is constantly disrespected and repeatedly cast aside in favor of his once close friend and eventually bitter rival Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). It builds methodically and upon itself, a clearly structured progression of narrative that Scott balances with great elegance, presented with effortless clarity while remaining dense and nuanced in its execution.
Scott’s ability to live and breathe within a world makes each moment consistently compelling, everything dripping with a palpable tension, a knowing inflection acutely aware that its imminent shift in perspective will quickly recontextualize each moment that came before. As the second title card fades in, “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris,” no time is wasted before immediately showing the revisionist history these men are playing with. We return to the gritty bloodbath that opened the film, Le Gris now a level-headed man of intelligence in harsh opposition to a petulant and impatient Carrouges. The recontextualization is twofold, simultaneously proving the unreliability of both Carrouges and Le Gris. Now shown two sides of the same coin, the maligned squire and his counterpart who slowly wins the favor of the noble Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Their self-important heroism both countered by the other’s perspective, they are equally transformed into unlikeable products of their destructive environment, but it is not until the film’s all important finale that the true depths of their hateful actions are revealed.
“The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges,” the final title card presents, lingering all importantly on “The Truth.” This film is not about Jean de Carrouges or Jacques Le Gris. It is about Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and her place within a society that treats her as a piece of property. What once glistened as noble acts of courtship now fade into dark reality, a man falling in love becomes a woman being sold as a womb, part of an ego boosting attempt to seize more land, and his sweet affection rots into rough and abusive treatment. Le Gris turns from handsome suitor to slimy scum, so blinded by his own twisted perception of the world that he cannot see the reality of his actions. It effectively trivializes the film’s first two acts, but without making them feel unimportant. These are false narratives crafted by minds so clouded by notions of honor and structure that they cannot see themselves for who they are, and each action shown for its true colors adds to the horrifying weight of Marguerite’s reality.
Marguerite’s reality burns towards its judicial reckoning, closing the many threads left hanging in each preceding account of the story. Marguerite’s perspective washes away the cloudy self-importance of Carrouges and Le Gris alike, both of them shrunk down from their positions of supposed nobility into the weaselly, angry men they are. Each and every action she takes – previously presented as simple and trivial matters – is now shown as a truly heavy burden, a life lived walking on eggshells in the shadow of these men, unappreciated and unheard. The final act of injustice against her demands to be heard, and yet it is abundantly clear that the mere act of having a perspective that exists in opposition to a man is little short of a death sentence. It burns with even more fury as she is consumed by the hateful vortex that surrounds her honesty. She cries out for justice but is met only with the jealous and unhinged pride of men, desperate to save their own images with no regard for the victim herself.
So we arrive. The last duel, the two men in heavy armor at opposite ends of a snow dusted arena, Marguerite chained to a lonesome wooden tower, kindling upon which to burn the slanderer should God find her guilty. A medieval duel has never looked grittier and dirtier, each movement and motion brimming with nerve shredding tension as the fight moves from the honorable clashing of lances to a brutal and carnal fight for survival. Blinded by bloodlust, consumed by pride. The gruesome reality of these final moments is that both Carrouges’ and Les Gris’ warped perspectives were told without a drop of falsity, each so wrapped up in their twisted codes of honor and culturally constructed disregard for women that they truly see themselves as infallible. No matter the winner of this duel, no matter the perspective, the chilling truth remains the same. Each path is dark and hollow, an emptiness that lingers. In a world of men, there is no justice.