The Last Duel is, its credits tell us, based on a true story. But, given that the events it depicts took place more than six centuries ago, how confident can we be in its accuracy? About as much as possible, it turns out. The movie is based on a book by American author Eric Jager, who performed copious research to get at the truth behind the last legally sanctioned trial-by-combat in France, which occurred in Normandy in 1386.
The truth, however, can still be a relative thing, as The Last Duel initially implies through its use of a three-part, Rashomon-style structure. The film opens with the beginning of the titular battle, between the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). At issue is whether Le Gris has raped Carrouges’ wife, Madeleine (Jodie Comer), as she has accused him of doing.
We then flash back to “The Truth According to Jean de Carrouges,” which chronicles the relationship between the two combatants, who meet on the front lines (if there is such a thing) of the ongoing Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Carrouges is a stolid, serious noble who sees Le Gris as a smarmy upstart, winning away the affections and rewards of their local lord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Carrouges marries Madeleine, the beautiful daughter of a onetime traitor, and eventually heads off to lead a military campaign in Britain. When he returns, Madeleine informs him that Le Gris had raped her, and Jean decides to make the charges public, although more out of a desire to protect his own honor than to seek justice for his wife.
Next, “The Truth According to Jacques Le Gris” presents many of the same events, but now Carrouges is a self-righteous, entitled ass, and Le Gris the competent soldier. It is only in Le Gris’ story, of course, that the actual assault is shown—and even from his perspective, it is objectively clear that he raped her. As the last third of The Last Duel begins, a similar title reads “The Truth According to Madeleine de Carrouges,” but when it fades, the words “the truth” linger a few seconds longer, in one sense giving the game away but in another making the parallels to present-day #MeToo, Believe-Women narratives crystal clear.
This leads to the most fascinating, and harrowing, sequence in the movie. (Stop here if you want to avoid potential spoilers.) When Le Gris arrives at the Carrouges’ castle, while Jean and all the servants are away, events unfold almost identically from Madeleine’s perspective as from Le Gris’. There are subtle differences in the performances of Driver and Comer, but the clear point is that the same violence was seen by him as an instance of overwhelming passion and by her as what it was, a brutal rape.
The 14th century setting allows for blatantly misogynistic utterances that still echo today. Rape is seen as a crime against the husband, literally a property crime. Madeleine’s decision to name her rapist goes against everything in her society and puts her at tremendous risk: If Le Gris is acquitted, she will be burned alive as a punishment for falsely accusing him. Hundreds of years later, laws may have changed and cultures may have evolved, but the ghosts of these attitudes still haunt women today.
It’s not exactly the story, then, one might expect from director Ridley Scott, who continues to churn out (mostly) quality big-budget flicks with the vigor of a man half his age. (He’s 83 years old, for Pete’s sake, and has another prestige drama set for release next month!). But, remember, this is the guy who directed Thelma & Louise, and who, despite his brusque, cigar-chomping demeanor, has never come off as a Neanderthal. He always brings a meticulous sense of detail to his historical epics, and The Last Duel is no exception—the locations, the armor, even the very mud feel authentic, and when we finally get back to that fight to the death, it’s clear we’re in the hands of an action maestro.
Notably, this is the first credited screenwriting collaboration between Affleck and Damon since their Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago. Just as notably, they brought in writer-director Nicole Holofcener to script Madeleine’s section of the story. One hopes for an audio commentary track on the eventual Blu-ray release in which the three discuss that process.
Performance-wise, Comer, best known before now for her role on “Killing Eve,” is fantastic. Driver’s unique physicality and unclassifiable charisma suits him well as Le Gris, although he never disappears into the role. The same can be said of Affleck and Damon, each of whom do solid work, the former in particular gleefully tackling his character’s snide villainy. But, despite some unfortunate hairstyling, you never forget these are movie stars you’re watching. Perhaps that’s somewhat inevitable. Without them, and Scott, The Last Duel wouldn’t have gotten the budget it needed to create the immersive environment in which its unfortunately relevant story unfolds. (Opens in area theaters on Friday, Oct. 15.)
THERE IS NO GREATER DEITY in the pantheon of Serious Cinema than Ingmar Bergman. More than any other figure, he epitomizes the quest to explore the meaning (or lack thereof) of existence within the border of the movie screen. His explorations of the relationships between men and women were lacerating, brutally honest psychodramas that didn’t let any party off easily (even if they could sometimes be seen as apologias for his own personal misogyny and infidelity). He remains a revered figure not only in his native Sweden, but worldwide, a fact the clever, fascinating Bergman Island exploits while presenting its own scenes from a marriage.
Tony (Tim Roth) and Chris (Vicky Krieps) are a couple, both filmmakers, who have come to the Swedish island of Fårö, where Bergman lived most of his adult life and where he shot many of his most iconic films. (To be clear, despite the copy on the film’s official website, Fårö is not “mythical.”) Today, the island is home to the Bergman Center, which in reality does just what it does in Bergman Island: invite selected artists to live and work on site. So it is that the couple end up sleeping in the very bed that Bergman used for his masterful, recently-remade “Scenes from a Marriage,” the TV miniseries that launched a thousand divorces.
French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve (whose longtime partner was fellow director Olivier Assayas) uses this springboard to explore both the pleasures and perils of cinematic idolatry, the challenges inherent in a romance between creatives, and the thin line between fiction and reality. Krieps, you might recall, went toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, and while she’s not asked to do anything quite so intimidating here, she’s excellent as a woman trying to reconcile her appreciation of the problematic Bergman, as well as her relationship with her own partner.
It’s a little jarring seeing presumably realistic scenes of the “Bergman Safari,” in which tour groups in yellow school buses visit the houses, shorelines, and even individual trees that have appeared in the master’s work. If Bergman may have chafed at the commercialization, he likely would have appreciated the ability to share Fårö’s inspiring charms with fellow artists.
Chris meets a younger Bergman scholar from Stockholm, who spurs something in her; and the second half of the film consists of her recitation of a screenplay she’s writing, brought to life and starring Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska has recovered nicely from her initial stardom as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and gives a beguiling performance in the film-within-a-film.
At one point, Chris has a bit of a breakdown after watching Cries and Whispers with Tony. “Movies can be terribly sad,” she explains. “Tough, violent. But in the end, they do you good.”
“These don’t,” he replies.
“No,” she agrees.
“Why do you watch them then?”
“Because I love them. I just don’t know why.”
Yep. (Opens Friday, Oct. 15, at the Living Room Theaters)
IN 2018, A DOZEN BOYS ON A THAI SOCCER TEAM and their coach were trapped in a flooded cave complex after premature monsoon rains arrived in the region. Their plight became a global sensation, and their eventual rescue a rare moment of worldwide good cheer.
The new documentary The Rescue, from the Oscar-winning team that made Free Solo, dives deep (sorry!) into this inspiring story of ingenuity and perseverance, told largely through the experiences of a small group of British amateur cave divers who traveled to Thailand and volunteered in the effort. Their stories are compelling, as are those of the Thai military members who were equally instrumental.
But what The Rescue really offers is a wealth of footage shot by divers during their forays into the terrifyingly dark, deep caves. If this stuff doesn’t make you claustrophobic, you might be cut out to be a cave diver yourself. Once the kids are discovered, two kilometers from the cave entrance, on the bare shelf of rock where they’ve been living without light or food for nearly two weeks, the mission becomes getting them out. And that’s when things really get intense. (Opens Friday, October 15, at the Hollywood Theatre.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
The new documentary by Portland-based Todd Haynes, The Velvet Underground, opens at the Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21 on Friday, October 15. Friday night’s screening at the Hollywood will be followed by a Q&A session with Haynes, whose 1998 film Velvet Goldmine was partially inspired by Lou Reed’s life. Look for a review here next week.
Also at the Hollywood, the bizarre and unforgettable 1981 thriller Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, and directed by Andrzej Zulawski, screens over the weekend. This notorious, almost unclassifiable cult classic charts the increasingly demented breakup between Adjani’s and Neill’s characters, eventually veering sharply toward body horror, and demanding performance of such extremity from its leads that both claim to have never fully recovered. Initially banned in the U.K., and released in severely cut versions elsewhere, it has been fully restored and promises a thoroughly traumatic time.
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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Last Duel,’ ‘Bergman Island,’ and ‘The Rescue’