Issue #54: Opening Weekend 🎟️
The Last Duel + Dune
Our deepest apologies for the later than usual dispatch this week. One of us got a little headstart on Halloween celebrations and fell asleep before she filed her review. (*stage whisper* It was Cate!) But thankfully, all is right with the world and we’re right here ready to talk movie to you.
Despite what the rhythm of this newsletter or our professional roles might suggest, we are two people who love to watch a new movie along with the rest of the world. In honor of that, this week we’re bringing you two new releases that piqued our interests enough for us to get these reviews out the door faster than we usually do.
First up: Zosha on her quibbles and kvetching about the aims and achievements of The Last Duel. Then we’ve got Cate on the fantastical world Dune, and its stunning wastelands brought to life.
Read, watch, chat with us. But don’t forget to subscribe if you didn’t find this via your inbox already. Happy movie yelling!
Zosha on The Last Duel
It is hard to quibble with The Last Duel. I should know, I have been doing it since the second the lights came up on my entirely empty matinee screening (bless. up.). It was a film I expected to be a slog, only to find it surprisingly interesting, and ultimately maybe even a little too self-seeking.
But let’s back up. In case the only thing you know about this movie is either that a) it’s that medieval one with such high-brown names as Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver, and Ridley Scott, or b) it’s two and a half hours long, let me elaborate a little more: The story is told in three chunks, all circulating around Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) who claims to have been raped by her husband’s former best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Driver). Le Gris and Mr. de Carrouges (Damon) had years of bad blood forming between them, culminating in the titular (and real) final judicial duel fought in France in 1386 to “have” “God” “verify” the veracity of Marguerite’s claims.
Each chapter focuses on the experiences of the individuals (we go from Jean Le Carrouges → Le Gris → Marguerite), and Scott clearly delights in letting his actors find new interpretations of their positions around each other. Which one actually publicly swore to bury the hatchet and be friends again? Who actually was well-mannered, or stood to best protect France? It all depends on who you ask.
As The Last Duel folds in more accounts, background, and details, it is immediately clear that the film will at least not be what I was afraid it would be from the trailers — something like a “he said/she said” where even we don’t get to “know” the truth. No, anyone who’s read a feminism can see that the two men were willfully ignorant in their own ways of how Marguerite suffered at their hands, and that her third chapter provides The truth (something the interstitial bolds for you).
I can’t tell you the movie’s not strong. Comer and Driver are great as always; Comer, in particular, finds small ways to modulate her performance that feel all in keeping with one character, rather than refracted through two others. Damon and Affleck play their parts admirably, even if sometimes they seem a bit out of tune with the rest of the movie: Damon is always good when petulant (see 30 Rock, and maybe also his life) and here he is the key of “brutish.” Affleck is more of a fuckboi party guy as a French noble than he ever was as Batman, and while his aloofness is sometimes out of sync with the gravity of the movie as a whole, it’s not unwelcome, and he’s quite good at making what could be a caricature into a human part of the plot.
But somewhere nestled in there is part of the problem with The Last Duel, my problem with it I keep turning over in my head. Pieces that don’t fit together neatly seem intentionally so — for instance, Affleck’s count lives above consequences, in an entirely different movie from the other leading men; a sloppy edit here seems designed to lead into a counterscene down the line — and it’s hard to argue with that. I get it, I do. I just don’t know what it all adds up to when things feel discordant. While I “saw” where the movie was taking me, I really did wonder exactly how the final duel might turn out, given all the plant of the stakes for Marguerite should her husband lose the duel, and ultimately hoped that the final act might surprise me with some twist I couldn’t see coming (even, frankly, if it had to get a bit brutal to do so). It didn’t, ultimately. The Last Duel is so interested in affirming its message that it doesn’t manage to rise above it, at least for those who take the central conceit as truth in our everyday lives. I am reminded of the complaints I had about True Detective: I wanted more than an exploration of misogyny and tired masculine energy. But what if that’s not the story that they wanted to write?
Movies don’t have to surprise me with twists. It’s all well and good if competent story tellers want to tell something that (to me; stay out of my mentions) feels a bit rote and obvious. But I do hope for some challenge, something that doesn’t feel like it’s underscoring a point I hoped our zeitgeist had moved past acknowledging as novel.
For those who feel like seeing a woman’s account of sexual assault told (and, ultimately, believed in its own roundabout way) on the big screen is a win, The Last Duel is certainly smart enough to satisfy. For those who see its game and hope it has something more to say than what it is, here’s hoping this isn’t the final word.
Cate on Dune
In general, epic fantasy is not a genre that I am particularly drawn to. I will watch anything that looks compelling enough, but Dune was a film that I was, for the most part, happy to ignore. It’s not that it didn’t seem like it would be a good film — rather, without knowing anything about the story or the history of the property, I didn’t feel drawn to participate. But it was the featurettes that originally sold me. Hesitant to dedicate 155 minutes to a sprawling story that probably required homework, I watched all eight of the extras available to HBOMax subscribers before diving into the film. What they showed me was a fully realized world that allowed for an immersive fantasy experience. And not just that, but a cast and crew that was truly passionate about bringing the story to screen.
I won’t bother to try to summarize the plot of the movie (Chosen One in space) — the first of a planned two-part installment. But I will say that Dune was worth the time. I went into the story completely cold and was enthralled by the highly visual storytelling and the attention to the details of the world being created. The performances were solid across the board, but it was the cinematography and production design that really sang. Vast landscapes and barren wastelands were rendered beatific under Greig Fraser’s lens. I have never seen sand look so stunning.
The film’s entire universe is sharply industrial, calling to mind stark dystopian futures imagined in the distant past. It sets up its colonial politics quickly and sharply — assigning value to its characters and places – and establishing its moral universe with ease. And it’s hard to discuss Dune without talking about its politics, because as with Game of Thrones it is largely a political drama set in a world different from our own.
The film gestures at a coming holy war from which the “Lisan al Gahib” will save its characters. But while the cast itself is fairly diverse, it is a white character, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) who is central to this myth. The Freman, the indigenous people of the colonized planet Arrakis, are all people of colour who speak a range of languages and are in tune with their world, protecting it from pillage of the spice that is produced there and extracted by off-worlders. It is a true adaptation of the source material, sure. But in 2021, it feels like an egregious oversight. Especially because so many of the best characters are people of colour who die in service of protecting Paul. They are funny, smart, interesting people whose only purpose in the story is to ensure his survival. Compelling as this world remains, it stings. Most of the characters on the movie’s sweeping posters are dead.
It’s especially egregious given the ways that the story erases the source material’s intentional coding of the Fremen as inspired by the Muslim world. The original text’s orientalist leaning may have its own problems, but it is clear about its influences. Villneuve’s Dune flattens those influences out into semi-appropriative generalizations. It’s an impulse that makes sense given the tenor of our times, but perhaps might have been better served by leaning further into them and situating them more clearly in history — fleshing them out so that they can more closely comment on both our current time and the time in which the story was written.
So much of Dune is a scaffolding for what we now know will come after. It is an exercise in setting the stakes and prepping the audience for the rest of the story. Under Villneuve’s watchful eye, what comes next is likely to be just as epic as this installment, and will smartly subvert its white savior narrative. But tropes wouldn’t need subverting if they weren’t there in the first place. As beautiful as this movie is, it still falls into some of the same narrative traps that beleaguer Western storytelling about the other. Thankfully, they’ll get the chance to try again.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: Fox Weather doesn’t deny climate change, it just denies it. Shaggy paved the way for every slasher stoner. A list about who rises who falls week-to-week in Succession that’s just incredibly precise criticism. On Dune’s white savior and Islamic historical roots. A smart review of a book on body image. Plus me on a podcast talking about an all-timer, Sleeping with Other People.
CATE: Dune’s desert problem, and it’s endless world-building, Chucky as a new queer icon actually, the legacy of that iconic pink dress from My Date With The President’s Daughter, the new cast of black girls in teen dramas, reconsidering Ma, the chaos of The Morning Show, and the return of HBO’s Insecure.
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Zosha + Cate <3