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‘The Last Duel’ doesn’t quite finish the fight

A good story told badly is an infuriating waste of time, but a great story told only adequately is in many ways worse. These movies are depressing wastes of time. Like ferraris idling in dead-lock traffic, these mediocre movies are garish displays of talent that are never fully acted on and possibly never fully realized. Films like this tease the audience with great premises, directors, actors and scenes and simply toss them all on screen expecting magic to happen. These movies don’t do a bad job, but a job is sadly all they show up to do, rising only to a middling level of competence and acceptance when so much more could and should have been delivered. They are exercises in pleasant forgetability that leave a sour taste in the watcher’s mouth, made more bitter by their overall non-confrontational sufficiency as enjoyable films, leaving you feeling cheated out of a better time while deprived of the right to complain because of the good time you had. Yes, even their virtues make these movies insufferable. The only true saving grace such films have is that they are rare. Most movies have the proper manners to be definitively good, bad or okay without the promise of higher achievement. If you wish to glimpse one of these rare beasts of aggressive mediocrity, simply seek out “The Last Duel.”

Directed by the legendary Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” recounts the epic true story of the final sanctioned trial by combat in French history, fought by the Knight Jean De Carrouges against his former friend, the squire Jacques Le Gris, after De Carrouges wife claimed Le gris raped her. Told in a triptych, the movie is split into three chapters, each telling the story of the duel from a different perspective. One chapter is from the view point of the noble De Carrouges (Matt Damon) telling of his many betrayals and slights at the hands of his former friend Le Gris (Adam Driver) and his lord Count Pierre (Ben Affleck), culminating with the rape of his beloved wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). While Carrouges’ section portrays him as a courragous and virtuous tragic hero, Le Gris’ section retells the same story to show him as a brutish, embarrassing, pig headed joke, with Le Gris as a soulful, romantic intellectual whose rape of Marguerite was a reciprocated crime of passion. The final perspective is Marguerite’s and serves as a feminist indictment of medieval society, showing Carrouges to be a loveless narcissist and Le Gris as a pompous self-serving fool. We watch them wage a war of vanity over her body, to the point where Carrouges forces Marguerite to have sex with him after she reveals her rape, a seciond defilement meant by Carrouges to reclaim his property. 

While the three clashing versions of the same harrowing tale serve to keep the audience guessing and engaged, resulting in a labyrinthine film of fleshed out characters, this gimmick is never exploited to its full stylistic potential. For example, the Le Gris of Carrouges chapter acts the same as the Le Gris of Le Gris’ chapter, rather than behaving like a cartoonish villain to better show Carrouges perspective on his actions. In a similar way, Marguerite’s rape in Le Gris’ chapter is still potrayed as a rape, despite Le Gris telling the story from a childishly romantisized and defensive perspective, and while this telling crime is far less disturbing than its telling in Margueritte’s chapter, I find myself wondering how much more traumatic Margueritte’s version of the rape would be, if the other version of the scene wasn’t also depicted as a rape. There are minor differences between each chapter that give them different meanings and effects, but for all intensive purposes, you see the same story three times in a row, with extra scenes and context between them. 

As I watched “The Last Duel,” I couldn’t help but ponder how much more impactful the movie would have been if Scott had gone all out with his three chapter format, giving each retelling a different tone, color scheme, style of shots, set of performances and even genre. The intricacies and complexities of the cast of characters would have revealed themselves through the stark variations in story and storytelling between chapters. But alas, each section is shot the same, in a serviceable, if banal straightforward format plucked from any other drama: inoffensive but without the bite or stylism that makes period pieces feel mythic. In fact, many characters talk in an unemotive contemporary fashion, without any historically accurate wordings or references big or small, anachronisms that kick the audience’s investment out of the story, out of the theater and onto the curb. Despite this, the performances are overall very good, and Adam Driver once again proves himself to be an actor worthy of his prolificacy, though it’s nothing career-defining. However, there are a number of characters, such as Alex Lawther’s giddy child-king Charles VI and Adam Nagatis’s smirking silent wingman to Le Gris, Louvell, who are simply thrown onto the screen with nothing to do, despite how interesting and well executed they are. There is a man, credited only as “The King’s Uncle” played by the incredible Clive Russell (of “Game of Thrones” fame) who only shows up at the final duel and yet expresses a random passionate desire for Caurrouge to win, a left over from an entire arc that must have been excised. This is what is so infuriating about “The Last Duel:” what virtues it has are never numerous enough and its vices are simply what it doesn’t do.  With an all star line up of directors, writers and actors, this film has absolutely no right to fall so flat. And yet it does, leaving you feeling like you were served tofu at a steakhouse. Sure the dinner may taste good in the moment, but it’s not what you came for and the second you leave, so will the memory of the meal.

 

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