“I sing the women, the knights, the military enterprises, the loves, the courteous and daring enterprises”. So Ariosto said, a long long time ago.
A lot of water (abundantly tinged with blood) has passed under the bridge and today we have also subjected that historical period to critical review, once automatically defined as epic, with the exploits of the brave knights who, riding mighty steeds, saved maidens in danger, they liberated the oppressed, restored justice, defended Christianity.
With his film The Last Duel, Ridley Scott also returns to the subject, of which he had already given us a critical vision with the 2005 film The Crusades, and here he updates the “chivalrous” argument to feminist themes, somewhat ahead of his time, even remotely resuming the theme of his first film, The Duelists, of which echoes are felt in the hostility that will exponentially contrast the two male protagonists, Matt Damon and Adam Driver.
The plot is simple: we are in 1386, the vassal Jean de Carreouges (Matt Damon), crude and ignorant but brave as a warrior, I have only one friend in life, the fascinating Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a courageous vassal too, comrade of many adventures. Over the years, however, the relationship changes, following various misunderstandings, and the two become enemies.
Jacques is also protected by the corrupt Prince Pierre (Ben Affleck), cousin of the inept “Mad King” Charles VI (and the nickname says it all), who favors him without restraint. Jean, not very rich but of esteemed lineage, marries the beautiful Marguerite (Jodie Comer), of very noble origins and equipped with a conspicuous dowry. But one sad day the woman reports that she was raped by Jacque and asks for satisfaction. The husband challenges his former friend to a duel, a duel to the death before God.
Those who are right will survive (because God is just and sees everything) but if Jean succumbs, Marguerite too, guilty of having lied, will be atrociously executed. The story is told three times: first by Jean, then by Jacques and finally by Marguerite, each time with slight, even very slight variations, depending on the three different points of view. Which are the most sincerely subjective you can imagine.
In this sense, more than the much-quoted Rashomon, the film is reminiscent of the TV series The Affair, in which this was the constant narrative style. A soap in medieval costume, then? No, because the screenplay written by the reformed couple Affleck / Damon together with Nicole Holofcener, starting from the novel by Eric Jager, who investigated this real historical fact in 2004, has more consistent aims.
The differences in the three narratives are subtle but significant: there are facts that change based on minimal details, phrases said a moment before or after that change the meaning of the event, husbands who see themselves more caring and attentive than they are perceived, others men convinced in good faith that they are irresistible; a distracted glance can be read as a sign of encouragement, moans of despair can be heard as moans of pleasure and so on, in a game of misunderstanding that could be fun if it didn’t end in tragedy.
Without forgetting the real tragedy, which is the life of a wife seen as her husband’s property and that only as such should be protected. Because The Last Duel is not a story of love and passion, but of possession and greed.
Jean, rough and complex towards the more cultured and fascinating Jacques, is convinced that he is in love with his wife and is determined to wash away the insult inflicted on the woman and her reputation. But he also wants to take revenge for all the previous offenses, bypassing the hated Pierre who has always protected his friend from revelry. Jacques, moreover, is really attracted to the beautiful Marguerite and being very much coveted, he is one of those men who think that a woman would never deny herself, and that if she says no, she is basically happy to be forced into sexual intercourse. . And he too has lost feeling towards his friend, who basically is happy to outrage.
Marguerite, moreover, is a woman victim of a world totally made up of men, dominated by her husband but unable to defend herself from the first that happens, if left helpless. And the arguments against her (the interrogation before the King) echo the many objections that still today oppose the complaints of raped women.
Splendid (few) action scenes, some cavalry charges, some physical brutality ground combat, to reach the final climax, with a duel of unusual violence. All immersed in a photograph as livid as the mud of the fields and the icy walls of the castles where the protagonists live, the work of the great Dariusz Wolski. As for plausibility in the historical reconstruction, Scott has already shown with The Gladiator that he does not care about the rigor and in fact in some scenes in the background we see Notre Dame still under construction (while it was completed in 1344).
The male cast works: Matt Damon is obtuse and granitic as the role requires, as is the attractive even if fickle Adam Driver, with his toxic, perhaps too modern, nonchalant physicality. Ben Affleck in an oxygenated version is a parasitic Prince; Jodie Comer, an Englishman brought to fame by the TV series Killing Eve, is a refined victim of the system, frozen (imprisoned) in a hostile world.
Even doubting that a woman would have been given so much space in those days, The Last Duel remains a good entertainment film, worthy of a director like Ridley Scott, who never denied that he was a craftsman of the highest level, passing through films of different genres.
Without having to bother the abused para-feminist theme, the film shows us how perverse mental mechanisms are, yesterday as today, making us reflect once more on how much each truth is subjective, how variable the chronicle of each event is depending on the perspective from which one has lived it, one has looked at it.