Maybe we, as a culture, don’t deserve good things. For years, we have lamented the creative inertia of the modern blockbuster – the over-abundance of vapid spectacle, CGI superheroes and “known IP” that has all but squeezed high-budget adult filmmaking out of the market entirely. So when a film like The Last Duel comes around, it should have been an oasis in the desert.
A medieval triptych directed by Ridley Scott, the film follows the real-life story of Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two noblemen who duelled to the death in 14th-century France after Carrouges’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses Le Gris of rape.
The same events are told three times, with each of the film’s segments being introduced as “The truth according to [Carrouges/Le Gris/Marguerite]”. The film’s three stars are all terrific, with each turning in a carefully distinct performance. The duel itself is brutal, and utterly gripping. The script is deft in how it re-contextualises events, neatly omitting scenes which could have corroborated or contradicted parts of other characters’ accounts.
There’s no equivocating about the sexual violence at its centre, though: in its moral message, The Last Duel is loud and unambiguous. And yet this quite brilliant, unapologetically adult-oriented film has recouped less than a third of its $100m (£75m) budget since its release in October. It’s one of the biggest flops of Scott’s career.
Those who championed the film have scrutinised the failure on social media, with many suggesting that Disney’s marketing campaign was at fault. (The Last Duel was greenlit by Fox before the studio merged with Disney in 2019; some claimed that the film’s adult subject matter would have been at odds with the Disney brand.) Too few people were informed of what the film was about, people claimed – or that it even existed at all. Speaking to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast this week, Scott stridently backed the studio, averring that Disney “did a fantastic promotion job”, and that “the bosses loved the movie”, despite his concerns that it was “not for them”. Instead, Scott pinned the blame squarely on millennials. “I think what it boils down to,” he said, “what we’ve got today, [are] the audiences who were brought up on these f***ing cellphones. The millennian do not ever want to be taught anything unless you’re told it on a cellphone.”
There are plenty of holes to pick in this slightly incoherent notion; not least that “millennial” is not the byword for young, tech-addled poseur it used to be. The youngest millennials are nearly in their late twenties. The oldest are already 40. Millennial s are no longer your hipster nephew; they’re your cheugy aunt. What’s more, millennials have also been some of the loudest champions of The Last Duel on social media – if anything, they are exactly who this #MeToo-inflected film resonated most strongly with.
The real reasons for The Last Duel’s box office death are, in all probability, much more banal. There’s the pandemic, for one thing, from which the film industry has yet to fully recover. And, while it’s true that many people doubtless eschewed the cinema release to wait for its prompt arrival on Disney Plus (next week), medieval dramas aren’t exactly a booming genre right now. Plus, the film’s sexually violent subject matter was clearly going to put some people off.
Added to that, The Last Duel was rated “18” by the BBFC (“R” in the US) – something that tends to put a ceiling on any movie’s commercial viability. It was also released the same week as the latest instalment in the slasher franchise Halloween Kills and the Venom sequel. Then there’s the inescapable fact that No Time to Die arrived in cinemas just two weeks earlier and was still monopolising screens everywhere; Dune came out one week later. The idea that a $100m epic from Scott and Damon would be unable to compel more than a couple of showings per day in a multiplex seems inconceivable, but given the competition, that was, in many places, the case.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to completely dismiss Scott’s millennial remark as simply an “old man yells at cloud” moment; perhaps there is some truth to the fact that younger generations aren’t buying what he’s selling. Some critics and social media commenters criticised the film’s depiction of rape, and questioned Scott’s prerogative to tell such a story (it’s worth noting that the film was written by Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener). I would argue that this is a specific kind of bad-faith reading of a film that is particularly prevalent among online millennials. In this case, it’s one that fails to properly acknowledge Holofcener’s contribution, and one that diminishes the progressive sensibility of Scott’s own oeuvre, which includes Alien and Thelma & Louise.
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Yesterday saw the release of another film by Scott: the maximalist fashion biopic House of Gucci. Whether he knows it or not, it’s a film that’s got “millennial” written all over it, from the casting of Lady Gaga to the true-crime premise to the way that its mere trailer was immediately broken down and regurgitated into Twitter memes. Perhaps Scott’s got his finger on the Gen Y pulse more than he lets on. But when you make a film as good, and substantial as The Last Duel, and barely anyone goes to see it, you have a right to be annoyed. That’s the truth according to Ridley Scott.
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