The newest movie to explore the politics of the #MeToo movement is Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” and it was snubbed by the Academy for its troubles.
“The Last Duel” is a spectacular work of filmmaking. It continues the tradition of such contemporary Hollywood epics as “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” with huge set piece moments populated with larger than life characters.
Scott is well acquainted with the Academy. He has received four Oscar nominations over his decades-long career for “Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and “The Martian.”
“The Last Duel” is a modern epic with grand performances and beautiful production design. It should be a natural fit for the Academy. Its performers were due credit for their work, namely Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck.
Affleck lost a best supporting actor nomination and was instead nominated for a Razzie.
The omission of “The Last Duel” is curious given that it is in complete alignment with the politics of the moment. It’s a film that is beholden to the politics of the #MeToo era. The heart of the film is a dogma that rejects as corrupt appeals to virtue, ethics and values. Instead, it sees the only valid moral perspective that of the oppressed against their oppressors.
The film arrives in theaters as the #MeToo movement is falling apart.
It was briefly the most powerful political movement in the country. Now Damon and Terry Gilliam have broken with #MeToo extremism, though Damon was forced to apologize after saying that consequences should be in proportion to the severity of the transgression. And Gilliam’s upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” got canceled.
#MeToo’s fall into irrelevance hasn’t stopped Hollywood from mythologizing the movement’s ideals. Films like “The Assistant,” “Bombshell,” and “Promising Young Woman” are exploring the top-down nature of Hollywood’s abuse problem and even encourage “Death Wish”-style retributive justice against abusive men in the latter case.
The conceit in“The Last Duel” is that it is told in three segments. Each follows one of the film’s three main characters — Sir Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite — and tells the same events from each perspective.
The story centers on whether Jean’s wife, Marguerite, was raped by his former friend Jacques. It follows the two men arranging a trial by combat that will, in the thinking of the time, determine who is speaking the truth in the eyes of God.
The first two segments play the same events in a biased fashion. Jean fancies himself a noble knight, and Jacques fancies himself a romantic playboy. Their own narrations of the events downplay their character faults.
Marguerite’s segment, declared by a title card as the truth, reveals both men to be liars, boors and rapists. They’re both cruel, egotistical, and unreceptive men who use her for sex. She isn’t even able to seek legal redress without the aid of her husband, who is mostly just infuriated that Jacques would dare to lust after his wife.
“The Last Duel” is a work of postmodern moral relativism, a contemplation of the nature of power and morality set against the patriarchal society of medieval France. Yet the film’s only consistent message is that power is corrupt and that victims are the only reliable tellers of history.
As Harriet Walter’s character, the mother of Sir Jean and a rape victim herself, says, “There is no right, there is only the power of men.” The movie only works, if you don’t question its conceit. The film amounts to a 150-minute lecture about the evils of men, the Catholic Church and monarchism.
It makes the same mistake as the #MeToo movement, assuming women lack complex motivations or flaws. That such a calculus risks destroying innocent lives is a possibility the film doesn’t bother to entertain.
“The Last Duel” might well be one of the best films of 2021, but it is morally shallow. It holds feminist dogma sacred and obscures truth when it doesn’t deliver the retributive justice the #MeToo movement demands. It is curious why Hollywood wouldn’t be more supportive of it.