Two blockbusters—The Last Duel and Succession
By Marc Glassman
The Last Duel
Ridley Scott, director
Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon, script based on the book by Eric Jager
Starring: Matt Damon (Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Bouchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Zeljko Ivanek (Le Coq)
Now that the pandemic has gone down in intensity, we’re beginning to see some of the big budget blockbusters intended for last year’s holiday season finally being released. The Last Duel is that kind of film, featuring stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver, directed by Ridley Scott, and filled with the gorgeous look we see when the art director and costume and set designers are given the freedom to get their visions on the screen. Audiences will be entranced by the film once they accept its sepia tone look, which reduces bright colour to a greyish palette, rendering a feeling of the past to the entire production.
Lovers of the auteur theory, which proposes that the best directors are the true authors of their films, might want to think about giving a shout out to Ridley Scott. At the age of 83, Scott may have just directed his final film and it’s intriguing to note that his first feature, made back in the Seventies was The Duellists. Surely not a coincidence–especially when you remember that his most financially successful movie, Gladiator, concludes with a ferocious duel, which ends with a death remarkably similar to the one in the new film.
But is this historical epic, set in 14th century France, filled with accurate period detail and brilliant performances, really just an auteur film? Not so fast. Three of the film’s producers, besides Scott, are the scriptwriters Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. They surely had a lot to do with shaping the drama in The Last Duel and that’s even before considering that Damon and Affleck are two of the stars of this very well-made production.
While we’re attributing credit, how about considering Eric Jager, whose book “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” inspired the whole production? The story has the depth, slow pace and length of something from a long time past. As it unfolds, the authenticity of the script, based on Jager’s compelling non-fiction narrative, comes through in every scene.
This is the tale of the last legally sanctioned duel by combat in France. Just to be clear: after 1386, when the combat between Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris took place, no fight between two antagonists over legal issues were settled by duels in France. In England, for example, the same legal change took place nearly 200 years later. Most famous duels—and there were many until the 20th century—were private ones and technically illegal. That includes the Alexander Hamilton v Aaron Burr duel; in fact, Burr was charged with murder but really only lost in the court of public opinion where he never was elected to a government office after Hamilton’s death.
The Last Duel was fought by two knights (or squires in France), Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, and was legally sanctioned by King Charles VI, who attended the deadly encounter. The fight took place because de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite accused Le Gris of raping her and her charge was backed up by her husband. The script is remarkably faithful to what we know of the event, which is a lot, because the court records are still extant.
What we don’t know, and this is where the film is relevant today, is what actually transpired between Marguerite and Jacques Le Gris. Was it rape? In order to handle the question delicately and ambiguously, the scriptwriters adopted what is generally called the Rashomon format. Rashomon is a classic Japanese film, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four versions of the same story of a rape and a murder in a forest are told by different people (including the dead man, whose voice is heard through a medium). The central idea is that truth is subjective and everyone has their own version of a story—especially an important one.
So, just as The Last Duel might be an auteur film or one made by scriptwriters or a mega-collaboration between craftspeople and artists, the story of the rape and fight to the death hasn’t one answer and can be rendered by multiple voices. In the film, we hear first from Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges, then from Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris and finally from Jodie Comer’s Marguerite de Carrouges.
There are some fascinating differences between the three versions of the tale. Jean de Carrouges, who is a humourless, stolid man, prone to anger when he feels wronged, recounts his version first. It is, like him, relatively colourless and yet we understand that he believes that Le Gris, who had been a friend, actively worked against him, acquiring land and property that should have rightfully been given to de Carrouges. The rape, for him, is the final straw: the worst betrayal of all and worthy of a fight to the death.
Jacques Le Gris, by contrast, is a witty arrogant man, used to getting his way. In his version of the story, which is far sexier and more playful than that of de Carrouges, Le Gris is given treats—land, a castle—because he’s the favourite of the local Count (played by Ben Affleck). He doesn’t intend to anger de Carrouges; he simply acquires what is offered to him. For him, Marguerite is a beautiful, intelligent woman, who deserves more than Jean. In his version of the story, he praises her prowess as a reader and speaker of foreign languages before showing up one afternoon to physically possess her. He thinks what takes place between them on that fateful day is consensual with her mildly protesting, as a noble woman must. In fact, he thinks he loves her.
While the first two accounts in The Last Duel were presumably written mainly by Damon and Affleck, it’s pretty clear that the brilliant writer and director Nicole Holofcener is responsible for Marguerite’s version of the rape. Marguerite has been hard done by throughout her life. While Jean may love her, he doesn’t know how to express it and his mother Nicole (well played by the great stage actor Harriet Walter) makes matters worse for Marguerite through her jealousy and pettiness. To Marguerite, the rape is simply that: an act of violence towards her and possibly her husband.
Seeing the rape through Le Gris’ eyes and those of Marguerite, it will, I think, be obvious that what transpires between them isn’t what we would view as consensual sex. But the script offers yet another moment of doubt. Despite numerous attempts over the six years of their marriage, Marguerite has never conceived a child. It’s put forward in the film that conception can only take place when the woman is aroused enough to have “the little death.” (This is, of course, another myth, but it’s in the screenplay as an important plot point). At the court trial, which precedes the duel, it’s apparent that Marguerite is pregnant. Indeed, she gives birth before the duel occurs. You can take the film’s narrative assertion as real or not but it is true that Marguerite did have a child then. (And two others over the next few years, which may serve to diminish the point historically but not in the film.)
Jodie Comer, who is terrifically witty and magnetic in the hit TV series Killing Eve, does what she can in a tough, restrictive role. And Holofcener certainly presents Marguerite’s point-of-view effectively. The Last Duel is a long and effective historical drama and it is wonderful to see the woman’s perspective being given license so far back in the past. Well played and directed, it’s a film that is well worth seeing—and talking about, in these fraught and ambiguous times.
Season Three debuts on HBO, Sunday, October 17
Created by Jesse Armstrong, who is the showrunner and one of the Executive Producers along with Adam McKay, Frank Rich, Mark Mylod, Jane Tranter, Will Ferrell and many more
Starring: Brian Cox (Logan Roy), Jeremy Strong (Kendall), Sarah Snook (Siobhan), Kieran Culkin (Roman), Alan Ruck (Connor), Hiam Abbas (Marcia, Logan’s 3rd wife), Nicholas Braun (Greg Hirsch, Logan’s grand-nephew), Matthew Macfayden (Tom Wambsgans, Siobhan’s husband, J. Smith Cameron (Gerri)
The brilliant Succession, the funniest and darkest satirical comedy-drama in television history is back this Sunday after two pandemic years. Many of us have been fervently waiting for the return of the Roy family–their amoral posturing and machinations fit so forcibly well into the times we’re living in. Initially intended as a take-down of the Murdoch family and their tabloid/Fox News right wing populist ideology, the show quickly morphed into a melodrama in which the four adult children of media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) vied for his attention and the role of successor to his communications empire. That the manipulation of the news became a place holder for the familial dynamics is one of the more ironic developments in the series.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the classic opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, certainly fits the Roys. Though there are innumerable supplementary characters in Succession, the main ones are Logan’s children, who began the series as Kendall, the presumed heir apparent (Jeremy Strong), the beloved if slightly left-wing daughter Siobhan or more appropriately “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), the snarky almost out-of-control son Roman (Kieran Culkin) and the hippie older brother from a first marriage, Connor (Alan Ruck). Over the three years, Kendall has gone rouge and is now actively seeking to force out his father; Shiv and her husband Tom (Matthew Macfayden) have tried to move into key positions in the Roy network; Roman has become clearer, smarter and more supportive of Logan; and Connor has shed his druggie past and is now trying to move into the inner circle.
All of these moves have taken time because Succession’s creators aren’t in a hurry. The characters have always made sense, even as they transform, and the actors—an inspired group of performers—are given the time to evolve their personas. What has made the series work is its convoluted but utterly compelling plots, which have meshed personal dramas with on-going political dilemmas. We’ve watched as Logan has dealt with Congressional hearings, failed attempts at taking over other media giants and fights over taking his corporation, all while dealing with strokes and other debilitating medical conditions.
During the first two seasons, Ken responded sometimes amazingly well in times of crisis, but his manic-depressive psychological condition has meant that the Roys can’t rely on him to make the right decisions. At the end of the second season, he spectacularly tried to take down Logan at a press conference when he was supposed to accept the blame for the latest Waystar RoyCo scandal. That has set up Season 3, with Ken fomenting trouble for Logan while the rest of his siblings have flirted with joining him but remained solidly behind their father. The other key character this season has surprisingly been the family’s cousin, Greg (Nicholas Braun.) Initially intended as comic relief, the extremely tall, bumbling assistant to Tom, Siobhan’s husband, has begun to exemplify the moral dilemma of the entire group. As usual, Greg has to be friendly with everyone, which has meant him becoming an intermediary between Ken and the rest of the family. Adding to his dilemma is the arrival in New York of his aging left-wing Gramps (James Cromwell), who has made it his mission to destroy his brother Logan. With Gramps being worth a quarter of a billion dollars, what should Greg do? He can’t decide whether the Roy’s media giant is evil or not—and whether he should care, considering he’s having fun.
The continuing attraction of Succession is the brilliant dialogue colouring its sharp devastating scenes. At its best, Succession feels like a terrific post WW2 Broadway satire or a Hollywood movie by Billy Wilder without the censorship. Kieran Culkin’s Roman is the best at uttering devastating put-downs of other characters but the rest, particularly Jeremy Strong’s Ken are very good at it, too. The rest of the cast is a pleasure to see, particularly Brian Cox’s Logan and Sarah Snook’s Siobhan, who truly can be “Shiv” when she has to defend the family. Succession is back and just as funny and terrifying as ever.