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Toward the end of Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” an epic evisceration of bad men and worse hair, a court official argues that a woman must experience sexual pleasure in order to conceive a child. “A rape,” he concludes, “cannot cause a pregnancy.” That’s your cue to scoff at the dire intellects of 14th century France, but it may also remind you of some of the comparably idiotic things that male politicians have uttered in our ostensibly more enlightened times. I doubt I’ll be the only viewer to flash back on the career-ending words of the former Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who in 2012 declared that the female body has ways of shutting down pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape.”
Those words resurfaced in the wake of Akin’s death earlier this month, a circumstance that the screenwriters — Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener — could hardly have foreseen. Nonetheless, their canny grasp of the political continuities between past and present is one of their script’s more pointed surprises. And surprises are key here: A bloody medieval drama hinging on a sexual assault case, after all, is hardly what anyone might have expected from Damon and Affleck, reteaming on the page for the first time since their Oscar-winning script for “Good Will Hunting,” or from Holofcener, known for her sharp contemporary comedies like “Please Give” and “Enough Said.” A willingness to subvert expectations is one reason this ungainly, ingenious and altogether fascinating collaboration works as well as it does.
Adapted from Eric Jager’s 2004 book, “The Last Duel” is a sprawling, often darkly funny account of the rivalry between two Normandy-born frenemies — Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), a knight, and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire — and the rape accusation brought against Le Gris by Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). That charge led Carrouges and Le Gris to their bloody final reckoning, the last trial by combat ever officially recognized in France. The movie opens with the duel about to get underway on a December morning in Paris in 1386 — a prologue that finds Scott in fine action-movie fettle, with enough clomping of hooves and clashing of weapons to stir memories of “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” to say nothing of “The Duellists,” his excellent 1977 debut.
But the movie to which this one bears the most significant resemblance is of even older vintage. It would be hard at this point to overstate the cultural cachet of “Rashomon,” an inspiration for countless movies about the elusive nature of truth (plus one of the greatest “Simpsons” jokes ever written). Its influence here is obvious: After that thunderous opening, “The Last Duel” abruptly cuts away, rewinds several years and proceeds to unravel its story in three distinct chapters, each one playing the same events from a different character’s perspective. Affleck and Damon wrote the male-centric first two chapters; Holofcener wrote the third, which adopts Marguerite’s point of view.
First up is Carrouges, played by Damon with a battle-scarred cheek, a righteous scowl and a mullet so hideous it turns you against him almost immediately, even in his own story. And it’s worth unpacking the hair in this movie, by the way, which is as revealing as the dripping candle wax of Arthur Max’s production design and the muted richness of Janty Yates’ costumes. The mere sight of Damon’s unkempt scraggle tells you everything you need to know about what a tool Carrouges is; the spectacle of Driver, sporting the long, dark tresses you might find on the cover of a medieval bodice-ripper, announces Le Gris as the life of the party.
No tonsorial slouch himself is their overlord, Count Pierre d’Alençon, a saucy libertine (hilariously played by a peroxide-blond Affleck) who makes no secret of his preference for Le Gris over Carrouges. (The mutual loathing between Affleck’s and Damon’s characters is one of the movie’s slyer jokes.) As the lowly squire begins to rise above the noble-born knight, their once-close friendship, forged years earlier in the thick of battle, swiftly disintegrates. Land and title disputes follow, as do some halfhearted attempts at reconciliation. Complicated dynamics of class, power and real estate are parsed, often in winkingly anachronistic language (“I’m broke!” the count declares at one point). But once Carrouges marries Marguerite, whose beauty catches Le Gris’ ever-watchful eye, all three characters are clearly destined for a tragic collision.
The first chapter exaggerates Carrouges’ righteousness; the second chapter flatters Le Gris’ ego. Enormously popular with the women he beds each night in Count Pierre’s party-hearty boudoir, Le Gris has no trouble believing that, once he’s fallen in love with Marguerite, she must naturally reciprocate his feelings. And so when he enters her home and forces himself on her while Carrouges is absent, he dismisses her anguished protests as merely the passionate outcries of a guilty conscience. The audience will suffer no such delusion: Even in a rendering of events that favors Le Gris’ perspective, it’s impossible to read this scene as anything other than the brutal violation it is.
There’s an obvious measure of calculation in that depiction; in retooling its medieval times for a #MeToo-era audience, “The Last Duel” is eager to present an unambiguous, morally uncomplicated view of what does and doesn’t constitute consent. That puts the movie in the tricky position — fair warning — of effectively replaying the rape scene from Marguerite’s perspective in the movie’s third chapter, with little variation except that her already obvious agony seems even more front-and-center than before.
But if the scene feels repetitive, it isn’t exploitative, and Holofcener wisely perceives Marguerite as more than the sum of her traumas. She may be trapped in a dull marriage that pressures her to produce a son (Carrouges’ heir problem is almost as bad as his hair problem) and stuck in a world where everyone, including her own mother-in-law (an acerbic Harriet Walter), regards her as chattel. But under these adverse circumstances, Marguerite distinguishes herself as a natural-born leader (she runs her husband’s business better than he does) and, ultimately, the rare woman willing to speak out against a rapist and the age-old patriarchy that enables him.
Through Comer’s intelligent, fiercely empathetic performance, Marguerite becomes the movie’s conscience, one who forges a direct link between the injustices of the past and those of the present. When Marguerite finds herself on trial, forced to defend her rape allegation in a court full of proto-mansplainers, the #MeToo subtext all but ceases to be subtext. “The Last Duel” may superficially mimic “Rashomon,” but in these moments it arrives at a decidedly different conclusion from Akira Kurosawa’s classic. Truth isn’t always ambiguous; sometimes it’s just suppressed, ignored and written out of history.
All of which runs the risk of making this movie sound obvious in its indictment of the arrogance, stupidity and awfulness of men in every century. Tell us something we don’t know! But if “The Last Duel” hits some familiar notes, it hits them, more often than not, with both unfeigned anger and an invigoratingly dark sense of humor. There’s a savage, self-flagellating gusto in the performances of Driver and especially Damon, a willingness to seem truly loathsome in ways that the sheen of movie stardom doesn’t always allow.
That subversiveness extends to the (anti)climactic duel itself, which Scott stages with all the bloody virtuosity you’d expect, but which nonetheless rings curiously, almost deliberately hollow. It hardly matters which man wins, the movie seems to be saying, in a world where women are destined to lose.
‘The Last Duel’
Rated: R, for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 15 in general release