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Movie review: Medieval and #MeToo clash in 'The Last Duel'
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Movie review

Movie review: Medieval and #MeToo clash in 'The Last Duel'

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On its mud-and-blood surface, “The Last Duel” seems like a familiar slog.

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, begins with all the expected medieval trappings: gory battlefields, imposing stone castles, the clop of horses. The skies are gray, the terrain muddy and, considering this film is by the director of “Robin Hood,” “Gladiator” and other brawny, masculine historical epics, you think you know what’s in store.

Written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, “The Last Duel” is not the story of manly valor that it first appears. It is more like a medieval tale deconstructed, piece by piece, until its heavily armored male characters and the genre’s mythologized nobility are unmasked.

The film is told in three chapters repeated from different perspectives. The first, which belongs to Jean de Carrouges (Damon), might have once been the sole version of “The Last Duel.” In 14th-century France, de Carrouges is a loyal and valiant soldier for King Charles VI (a childish ruler played by Alex Lawther) who weds a nobleman’s daughter, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). He finds his agreed upon dowry, including a handsome parcel of Normandy, has been taken instead as a debt collection by the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). He in turn awards the land to de Carrouges’ friend and fellow warrior Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). This starts a rift between de Carrouges and Le Gris, as well as with the count, who strongly favors Le Gris. De Carrouges sees himself as a good and brave man, unfairly treated by his superiors. When he returns from a trip, his wife tells him that she was raped by Le Gris. De Carrouges vows to bring him to justice.

There are hints in even this straightforward first section of something not lining up. First, there are the haircuts. Damon sports a mullet and a half-formed beard; Affleck has trim blond locks that would be better suited to a boy band. That they look foolish may be intentional.

The second section replays the same time period only as according to Le Gris, and “The Last Duel” grows more interesting. Here, we see De Carrouges as an impetuous soldier, an aggrieved complainer and, well, no fun. He fusses and fumes about honor while Le Gris and the count (Affleck in campy splendor) roll their eyes and spend late nights drinking and bedding women. To Le Gris, his act with Marguerite is bold and rough but driven by love, and perhaps mutual longing — though certainly not consensual.

Damon and Affleck, who last together scripted their breakout, “Good Will Hunting,” have said they wrote the first two sections, and handed over the third, of Marguerite’s account, to Holofcener, the filmmaker of “Enough Said” and “Lovely and Amazing.” The film, adapted from Eric Jager’s 2004 nonfiction book about the true history, has been building to this definitive account.

The third section is a wholly different perspective on the Middle Ages, as typically seen in film. Comer takes control of the film as it captures Marguerite’s experience being wed in a business transaction, the pressure to birth an heir and her savvy stewardship of the castle while De Carrouges is away.

Here, “The Last Duel” seems not at all so long ago. Many of the dueling perspectives of the film — slyly self-aware — reverberate with today’s #MeToo struggles. It’s tempting to think “The Last Duel” should have just been Marguerite’s account, but so much of the film’s pleasure is seeing Damon, Affleck and Driver — each playing a type, a sort of guy — gradually dismantle and even lampoon their own charms.

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