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I wanted to see The Last Duel in theaters. It is a story that my partner was interested to see, and we were making tentative plans to see it. I'm still hesitant to go to a movie theater due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. I actually passed on seeing Spider-Man: No Way Home in the theater because I don't want to sit in such a crowded space with total strangers. I was actually kind of relieved that The Last Duel was bombing in theaters. It would mean that we could go see it in theaters, and I could be comfortable in the knowledge that we should expect to have no problems social distancing in the theater.

But real life happened. We got busy with stuff, and kept putting it off. Then my partner actually caught COVID, so we were self-quarantined for 2 weeks. By the time we would have had an opportunity to go to the theater, I think The Last Duel had already been pulled.

So when we were sitting around in the holiday week between Christmas and New Year, with plenty of free time on our hands, we saw it while scrolling through HBO Max and decided to finally watch it.

The structure of The Last Duel is quite unorthodox for a feature film. It abandons the typical 3-act structure of most mainstream movies in favor of more of kind of a 4-act structure, in which the first 3 acts retell the same events from 3 different characters' perspectives. There isn't technically a 4th act, as the climactic duel is actually part of the 3rd act, but as it's a culmination of all 3 characters' plots, I kind of see it as its own 4th act.

The Last Duel - Carrouges
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel - Le Gris
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel - Margueritte
©: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The Last Duel repeats almost the entire story 3 times, once from each characters' perspective.

I'm on the fence about this particular style of story-telling. On the one hand, there's a lot of subtly and nuance that re-frames or re-contextualizes most of the events depicted. We get to see multiple characters' conflicting perspectives of the same events, and how one person can believe himself a hero, while everyone else might see him as a self-righteous dick.

However, I have two significant complaints with the structure of this film, in particular.

The first complaint that I have with The Last Duel is that the desire to re-tell the same events 3 times leaves little time for anything else. We get one scene early in the movie of De Gris and Carrouges fighting together on the battlefield. There's nothing else to help build up and develop the deep friendship and respect that they supposedly have. The audience is constantly being told that they are good friends, but all we ever see is petty bickering between them. We just have to take the characters' word for it that they were ever friends to begin with.

This really lessens the tragedy of the violations of trust that lead to their inevitable duel because it never feels like there was a relationship or trust to begin with. We see their conflicts repeated over and over again, but we never see their supposed friendship at all. So when they duel, it's not bittersweet or tragic.

The Last Duel - duel
Copyright: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
The duel itself is great to watch, but is less tragic, since the friendship is never really established.

The second problem with the thrice repeated story structure is that by the time of the third vignette, there is very little new information left to reveal to the audience. Marguerite's story seems like a recap of what we had just seen from Le Gris' perspective, repeating almost all of the same events and dialogue nearly verbatim. The whole vignette drags, in part because it's rough to watch (again).

There are subtle changes to the framing of shots to hammer home the change in perspective, and the nuances of the performances do subtly shift the understanding of the events, but not in a substantial enough way. Le Gris' "truth" already appeared rape-y enough. There is not enough ambiguity for a change in perspective to re-contextualize the events. It was already thoroughly non-consensual and traumatizing from Le Gris' perspective, so seeing from Marguerite's perspective that it is slightly less consensual and even more traumatizing doesn't change our perception of the character. He was a rapist by his own admission, even if he refused to use the term "rape". The only real contribution that Marguerite's story provides is to make Carrouges look more like a petty scumbag.

So when we get to the actual duel in the fifth act, I honestly couldn't care less if either or both Le Gris or Carrouges died. I only rooted for Carrouges because he represented Marguerite's victimization. If Carrouges loses the duel, that would be seen as proof that Marguerite lied about the rape, and she would also be put to death. She is the only truly victimized character in the story, so hers' is the only character's well-being that I cared about.

But that is kind of the whole point. Nobody in the story actually cared about Marguerite or saw the rape as a crime that was committed against her. Everybody was only concerned about what the rape meant for the men involved. Either the rape was a crime against Carrouges, who's heir's legitimacy is now in question, or the false accusation of the rape is a stain on the reputation of Le Gris. Most of Carrouges' story is about petty disputes with Les Gris over land rights and debt collection. His wife's rape comes off as being just the final insult in a series of insults, instead of being the only insult that matters.

The Last Duel - Margueritte
Copyright: Scott Free Productions, 2020.
This is really the story of Marguerite's battle with the patriarchy.

Marguerite's "truth" may feel like a redundant afterthought when viewing the movie, but it is actually the most important "truth" of the entire film. The true villain here isn't supposed to be Le Gris or the count (portrayed excellently by Ben Affleck) or the king, but rather it's the more abstract idea of the patriarchy itself. Marguerite has been obviously wronged, but yet there is no legal action that she can take in which everything is not stacked against her.

The law is enforced by a "good ol' boys" club of corrupt, nepotistic nobles, or by an exclusively-male clergy that practices rape as a matter of course and the worst-kept secret in France. This is where The Last Duel shines: as a fury-inducing critique of corrupt, patriarchal and religiously-based legal and ethical systems, that seems antiquated by modern standards, but of which the underlying power dynamics still feel painfully relevant almost a millennia later. Our society is somehow still arguing today about the definition of "rape" whether men should be held criminally responsible for "not being able to control themselves around a beautiful woman", whether "no" really means "yes", whether it's proper for victimized women to speak out, and whether we should believe them or give the men the benefit of the doubt.

The climactic duel itself is also more about the fate of Margueritte than Carrouges or Le Gris. Even if I didn't care about the stakes for Carrouges and Le Gris themselves, it was still an impressive piece of cinema. It's brutal and gruesome and dirty, feels very authentic, and is not at all glamorous. So even though I thought it failed as a piece of story, it was a smashing success as a piece of action. All of the battle scenes are like this.

Despite my complaints with the structure and length of The Last Duel, I do recommend it. It's nice to take a break from the endless onslaught of CGI comic book adaptations with universal apocalyptic stakes, and watch a relatively small-scale story, full of practical sets, costumes, and action sequences, and with topical relevance.

Comments (1) -

10/04/2022 14:16:39 #

Excellent review. It mirrored my own impressions though I may have liked it more. I watched it initially because it is set at the same time as the story I am writing now and i wanted to see how authentic were the details. And that is what drew me...the armor, the clothing, the battle scenes, the constantly being mired in mud, a world lit only by fire and the thinking of women as property.

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