The Last Duel (English)
“Certainly, we needed to bring something to the table which was believably medieval. But you know, Ridley said to me on numerous occasions, there’s no prizes for authenticity, but there can be prizes for perfect story telling.”
Note: This article has been writed in English and later translated to Spanish. This is a direct transcription of a video of youtube that you can watch in few time, in English.
THE CHARACTER INTRODUCTION / THE TRUTH HOLDER
When does a film need music? And, why? And also, can music clarify if someone’s telling the truth?
Welcome to The Movie FAQ, I’m Fernando Ayuso and this is a new section by AsturScore where we are going to try to find answers and showcase the art behind the films and their narrative.
In this case, we’ll talk about The Last Duel (2021), directed by Ridley Scott and written by Nicole Holofcener together with two of the movie stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both winners of an Oscar for best original screenplay in 1998 for Good Will Hunting. This time they tell us the true story around the last trial by combat in medieval France, when the knight Jean de Carrouges challenged his old friend Jacques Le Gris to a duel after claiming he raped his wife, fighting both to death. It’s a story told from multiple points of view and divided into different chapters that show each character’s own perspective regarding the events they’re facing. Thereby, the screenwriters take the iconic narrative technique used by Akira Kurosawa on his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, and usually called under the name of the movie as the “Rashomon effect”.
It’s really worth noticing how in The Last Duel the filmmakers get to capture the essence of every character from both perspectives, their inside truth or how they see themselves, and the outside one, how they are seen by others.
Knowing all that, and assuming this is a character-driven story, many questions spring to my mind regarding the score. In this case scenario, is the music needed at all? And if they use it, what can it add to the narrative of the film? Should the composer just stay out of the director’s way, or on the contrary, he may help us to understand every protagonist’s inner psychological complexity, their motivations and fears, and also increase what we perceive as their unique truth?
This is clearly a film where self-indulgence plays a big role. That’s quite clear if we focus on the acting. We realize that in one scene a character may be open and pleasant, and in the same event but told from another point of view this person ends up being the very opposite. But also, we could know all that if we pay attention to what the score is telling.
Thus, the first two questions, whether or not the music is needed and what the score can add to the dramatic arc or to the narrative, are answered in the very first seconds of the film and what it does is tremendously valuable: the music introduces the main protagonist, Marguerite de Carrouges, played by Jodie Comer.
But before diving into the score by Harry Gregson Williams, let’s stop for a while and focus a little bit, just as an aside, on that incredible topic that is an art in its form: the character introduction, or how directors and screenwriters tell us everything we need to know about one person, about their personality, status, aims and fears, and a long etc, just in one scene or even a simple shot.
They manage to do all these by making use of the cinematic tools at their disposal. The design of a set or a precise framing can overshadow a character or even make him invisible; singular costumes at specific moments or a few phrases or gestures can summarize in just a few minutes or seconds the essence of a character, no matter how complex this may be.
Let me take you just a moment to the artistic universe of (for me) one of the most successful filmmakers on this matter, Paul Thomas Anderson. In the first sequence of his masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007), we see a man in a hole, digging, falling apart and getting hurt. Then we see how, being unable to walk, he crawls on the ground for what we imagine could be kilometers, just in order to seal a deal and cash a check. He doesn’t even need to speak. We already know how ambitious, greedy, persevering he is in his goals, pushing himself and reaching unexpected limits. And if we go deeper, we’ll find out even more personality traits.
At the beginning of The Master (2012) however, the director starts offering a range of situations, apparently disconnected from each other, that instantly defines the extravagant nature of the protagonist. In a couple of minutes Anderson introduces us the essence of Joaquim Phoenix’s character, or at least the psychological qualities he wants us to know about in the first place.
And last but not least, probably his best achievement introducing a character. In Punch Drunk Love (2002), making use of production and costume design, and choosing a precise framing, he needs just one shot to define what may be an invisible man. His blue jacket is masked by the same color stripe on the wall behind, and this, together with the insecurity in the voice of the protagonist, tells us this is a common and a kind of irrelevant guy. Getting all these in the blink of an eye is true genius.
Coming back to The Last Duel score, you may ask: why are we talking about all these? Well, because that’s exactly what Harry Gregson Williams does in in the first few minutes of the film, but using music instead.
When I think about music introducing a character, my mind instantly travels to a specific moment in a film that’s completely different to The Last Duel, but it perfectly portrays the intentions behind its narrative and how descriptive and expressive film music can be. I’m talking about the epic 1984 comedy fantasy, Gremlins, scored by Jerry Goldsmith.
The legendary composer has multiple examples where he adds layers of information about things we don’t necessarily see on the screen just with the use of music. A masterful example would be First Blood (1982). Thanks to the music we understand, right at the beginning, that the protagonist is far from being the beast the police eventually force him to be. Another example would be The Wind and the Lion (1975), where the leader of a band of insurrectionists that violently kill and kidnap people is portrayed by a majestic and honorable theme. This sets a strong contradiction between the actions of a man and his aura.
In Gremlins however, Goldsmith finds the space to introduce a very secondary character, Mrs. Deagle, in just a few seconds, probably by necessity, and that’s because she doesn’t appear long enough to have the time for a thematic development, but Goldsmith quickly gets to emphasize what the director wants to convey. The very first time we see Mrs. Deagle on the screen we listen to this theme.
The old-fashioned lady is portrayed by a weird waltz played by funny synthesizers that suggest the idea that something’s wrong with this character. There’s something malicious about her, but also buffoonish. All these is masterfully summed up in a precise musical idea.
In The Last Duel, the first thing the filmmakers do, even before emphasizing the duel that gives name to the movie, is introducing Margarite de Carrouges, the main protagonist. Ridley Scott wants us to focus on Marguerite early enough in order to clarify that there is no other option but her telling the truth.
Just at the beginning of the film, they take us all the way to near the end of the story. At this moment there are no chapters yet, nor subjective points of view either. What we see is a woman getting dressed and preparing herself to what’s coming, and what we listen to, for the first time, is her theme, the music that defines her.
We know nothing about the story or about her, but however, the music drives us quickly enough to understand who she is. The theme starts adding information right away.
We hear a beautiful and delicate female voice creating an evocative and intimate moment. The melody is simple and haunting, and I would say there’s something mystical in the music. This first version of the theme seems an angelical rendition to what she actually is: a truthful person and the only one in the story that can really love.
After this scene, film and music fast-forward to a section where tension prevails, establishing a strong and meaningful contrast with the opening theme mentioned earlier. We thus have a firm, sweet and upright character in a rough, war-ridden world.
With this music and the intentional contrast, Ridley Scott wants to convey just from this point at the beginning who bears the truth in this story, this contrasting with those representing confrontation and virility, understanding virility in a pejorative sense.
Listening to this first cue, and the integrity it provides to the character, there’s no need to clarify who’s telling the truth anymore. Ridley Scott, however, does it straightaway at the beginning of her story aiming to avoid any possible doubt. Certainly, that’s not the music of a liar. Harry Gregson Williams stays strong on the essence of the protagonist and he tells us what we really need to know about her at first sight, also conditioning, for good, the way we’re going to face the rest of the film.
We will understand eventually that the music that defines her evolves to a love song devoted to what makes her feel free and alive: her son. The lyrics are in French and they were taken from a love song called “Amors me fet comencier” written by XIII century composer Thibaut de Champagne. It talks about love, more specifically the love of a man for a woman, but it seems it’s been adapted and partially rewritten in order to change the subject and turn it into a love song from a mother towards her son.
Because of its importance, this is clearly the main theme of the movie. We’ll find numerous variations, adding more information about the character, depending what version of the story we are in.
THE POWER OF SILENCE / THE RELIEF OF SILENCE
I wonder: can silence add any information on the story or the characters as music actually does?
In The Last Duel we have two kinds of music. On the one hand there is the objective one. This is the kind of music that comes from the outside and is truthful no matter the circumstances, creating a powerful aura that goes beyond any interpretation and that, ultimately, represents the perspective of the director of the film. On the other hand, there is a music that is completely subjective and rely on the point of view of the one who the story is about. This kind of music is confined within each of the chapters of the film, whereas objective music is placed outside these boundaries.
In that sense, in the third chapter, focused on Marguerite’s truth, we see a confident woman that feels valuable but not valued by her husband or mother-in-law. When Jean is away, she doesn’t hesitate a second and takes control and manages their lands even better than her husband actually does.
Thanks to the music, specially a rhythmic and kind of medieval use of string instruments together with the percussion, we know she feels confident and strongminded, while at the same time she is having fun; they are all facets of a strong personality that makes her free in a time when that wasn’t even an option.
The theme is also used in the male characters’ stories, where its variations add another subtext depending on the point of view. For Jean de Carrouges, who believes having the power over everything and everyone around, his wife is sweet and kind, and also compliant, even knowing the last one is a quality that has nothing to do with Marguerite. A peaceful and intimate variation of her theme strengthen Jean’s own and subjective perspective.
Le Gris on the other hand gives her a completely different attribute. To him, an obsessive person, she is fervent, passionate, and so it is her music when he’s dreaming.
But apart from the main theme, Harry Gregson Williams delivers a lot more in this score. Musically it has a lot to do with the dramatic parts of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, also scored by Gregson Williams and probably one of his masterpieces music-wise. However, The Last Duel is a far more serious and sober a score; the filmmakers face the storytelling process with great respect to Marguerite and the horrific circumstances she suffered.
It’s in this sense that we instantly understand the fantastic decision of not using music on the battle scenes. And that’s a strong decision that implies how critical the story is for our time and for Ridley Scott, who has always emphasized the action scenes with percussive and powerful music. We can go back to historic dramas like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), the successful Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven as we mentioned earlier, the later Robin Hood (2010), and finally Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
In The Last Duel, the narrative and dramatic capacity of the music is restricted to what’s really important: the characters and their story. In that respect there are also themes for Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, and the use Harry Gregson Williams made of them, or, to put it more precisely, the way the composer avoids using them, is probably one of the most interesting features of the score.
Jean de Carrouges’ theme has two different parts that defines the two faces of the character, both joining together in specific scenes like the first time it appears. On the one hand, he is a warrior from the Middle Ages, rude, with no intellectual preparation, a guy that has devoted his life to war and, very important, that holds himself in very high regard. In that sense, his music is kind of simple, or at least less elaborated than the rest of the characters’ music and quite straightforward and energetic depicting his impulsiveness.
The second part of the theme is the music of the hero, grandiloquent and trying to create a majestic aura through a big orchestra and chorus. He perceives himself as a great leader and, as I said before, a true hero; but as we’ll find out, no one else around sees that quality in him.
There are some dramatic variations of the theme; for instance, at the council, shortly after Marguerite was raped. This time, what it was a powerful music now becomes a doubtful theme. It’s like there is no honor in his music anymore, and he is very afraid of that.
The second part of the film focuses on Le Gris’ side of the story. Again, the music shows his personal self-perception. In this case there are also two different musical ideas associated to the character. A more elaborated score talks about a literate person, competent on languages and numbers. The tone is set by the use of a kind of medieval music with choirs in Latin, a language he masters.
This point has a lot of interest, coming from Ridley Scott, who’s always been generally critical of religions, and particularly of Christianism in several of his films. The filmmakers give this kind of medieval church music to the powers of the State and more specifically to the people related to them, here the bad guys of the movie, making a strong simile: the church equals villains.
Le Gris’ second musical idea represents the flip side of the coin, a relentless and feared warrior that always gets what he wants, using his strength assaulting women every time he pleases. This music is dark and seems to be built around an onomatopoeia, expressing the presence of a dreaded wolf that quietly attacks its prey.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
All these themes and dramatic ideas are really great. But, in my opinion, as I said before, there is something much more interesting on the use of music in this film, and actually, that’s the absence of musical themes to tell us more about the characters.
Having in mind this is a three-chapter film showing their unique and quite different truths, together with their own self-perception, it’s fascinating seeing how each of them looks at the other characters, but through the lenses of music.
As we mentioned earlier, Jean de Carrouges holds himself in very high esteem and his music is powerful and heroic. In his version of the story there is space for his wife’s theme, but, however, there is no music for Le Gris. At all times de Carrouges feels superior to his friend, especially after being knighted in Scotland. For de Carrouge, Le Gris doesn’t keep up with him as a warrior nor as a man, and there’s no music at all for him.
On the other hand, Le Gris sees himself as a charming and cultivated man, as well as a dreaded and confident warrior. In his story we discover Marguerite’s theme, as mentioned earlier, but he is so obsessed with her that there is another music that represents his insincere love for Marguerite. What captures his attention is her high cultural level and her taste for letters, equal to him and far superior to her husband’s. That’s why this music is refined and cultured, with Latin choirs, very much like the literate part of his music, where this feeling is born.
But again, in this chapter, for Jean de Carrouges, his friend and forthcoming opponent, considered inferior in intelligence and skills, there’s also no music at all. From Le Gris’ perspective, Jean is not worthy of it. There is just silence.
THE RELIEF OF SILENCE
And finally, there’s the duel.
Now we’re gonna talk briefly about the last sequence, just after the fight, so if you haven’t watched the movie, I warn you there will be mayor spoilers from now on. So, please go and watch it, and don’t forget to come back later!
There’s something very remarkable about the music at the end of the film. There’s a track in the soundtrack album called The Aftermath for that specific part, just after the duel, where the composer offers a powerful and kind of bright rendition to the winners. However, that’s not the music used in the film.
In the final edit we realize the score is powerful as well, but also darker and still more related to a sense of war. There is no tribute at all to the protagonist and the only relief given to her comes from the use of silence at the end of the sequence, as a reward to Marguerite.
She is the heart of this story and her music is the soul of the film. Almost everything goes around her in this narrative effort by Harry Gregson Williams, a rounded score that deserved his first Oscar nomination. But who really cares about the Oscars anymore? Right? Well, being honest, I do sometimes.
The Last Duel
- Duel Preparations (3:36)
- Leaving for Scotland (2:42)
- Marguerite de Carrouges (2:18)
- Returning Home (1:14)
- Jean de Carrouges (1:18)
- Managing the Estate (2:23)
- Court of King Charles (0:56)
- The Wolves (2:33)
- Confrontation (0:37)
- Jacques LeGris (1:13)
- I’ve Never Seen You Like This (1:12)
- Confession (2:16)
- I Offer You a Name (3:28)
- House Meeting (0:58)
- Chapter 3 (1:11)
- Left Alone (1:17)
- Forgive Me for Intruding (1:27)
- Tell No One (2:28)
- The Duel (5:12)
- The Aftermath (3:08)
- Celui Que Je Désire – Grace Davidson (3:49)