Discover more from Discourse Blog
My Obsessive Quest to Understand Ben Affleck’s Hair in 'The Last Duel'
I simply must know: would/could a man have bleached his hair like this in medieval France?
Movies are back, baby! After 19-some-odd months of limited cinemagoing due to the pandemic and a slate of lackluster films, we’ve finally arrived at a place where the movies are “good” again and the safety precautions (depending on your personal circumstances) are up to snuff.
What have I done with this newfound freedom? Well, this past weekend I went and saw Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s much-anticipated cinematic reunion, The Last Duel. Why? I don’t fully know! It intrigued me? I’m a (Last Duel co-writer) Nicole Holofcener stan? I was in the mood for a Big Hollywood Movie with Big Hollywood Stars? I’m a sucker for hype? Yes to all of the above. In any case, I was apparently one of about five people who felt this way, because the movie bombed big time in its opening weekend.
This is not necessarily a major surprise, or a severe injustice. The Last Duel, in my opinion, is not very good. That said, I do agree with and appreciate Hunter Harris’ take that more movies should be about bullying Matt Damon. Absolutely true and this is a highlight of The Last Duel for sure. And even though I thought The Last Duel seemed like the result of a few dudes with a lot of money taking a women's studies class and saying to each other “we gotta tell someone about this,” it’s rattled around in my mind for days due to one of the very first things that drew me in to begin with. I’m speaking, of course, about the completely bonkers hairstyling choices.
Yes, I’m far from the only one who clocked these batshit looks. Long before the movie was even done filming, people were up in arms over Affleck’s beach blonde locks and Damon’s meaty mullet. Affleck and Damon were reportedly skeptical of these looks themselves. Affleck told Entertainment Weekly that when director Ridley Scott first proposed them, he and Damon were “sort of shocked" but “because he's such a stunning visual artist and he's the director you trust him." He also said, "I hope people don't walk away from the movie focused on that. [Sorry Ben!!!] But it does serve to help us both feel not like how people generally see us and also a part of this other world. That's my guess about his intention.”
Okay, sure. Weirdly, a character in a show that Scott produced and partially directed has a nearly identical look to Damon’s mullet and face scar??? That’s another mystery for another day. While we may never know the seed from which Scott’s mullet obsession grew, we do know that Affleck’s short, blonde look was inspired by Max Von Sydow’s styling in The Seventh Seal. That’s a bold connection to draw for many reasons. For one, in that classic piece of cinema, the knight’s hair does not call to mind the likes of Guy Fieri, Mark Mcgrath, or Machine Gun Kelly. Alas, the influence of gently alt men looms large in our modern culture.
Affleck also said of his styling, “It's about representing power. I am the patriarchy, the power structure, all of these things embodied in this character, and visually, from the way I was dressed, adorned, and the hair." Lol. I won’t speak to that, but while watching every single one of the movie’s very long 155 minutes, I did find myself squinting at Affleck’s head. I studied the contours at the nape of his neck, the coloring differences between his head and eyebrows and chin, and the condition of his follicles. I had to know, what was with this look??? As the story continued to play out, I became obsessed. I had to understand what was happening behind that pale yellow noggin.
Seriously, look at it in motion:
When I asked myself the above question, it was with the mindset that the character, Count Pierre d’Alençons, had dyed his hair like a proper Medieval Eminem, but my fellow moviegoers didn’t share this assumption. One said they thought “he was just supposed to be blonde” while another said he “thought [Affleck] had a condition.” Hmm. It’s possible, I suppose, that either of those things could be true, but it made me refine my inquiry: did/could men of that era bleach their hair?? Was such a look even possible in 14th century France?? My obsession turned to fact-checking the accuracy of this cursed style. I’m not a hair color expert but to me—someone whose naturally brunette locks have, over the years, been colored different shades of blonde, pink, purple, silver, and gray—the tone of Affleck’s blonde did not look like it was meant to evoke nature or an underlying condition, and so as I write now, I’m proceeding ahead here as if it’s dyed. I accept that I’m probably wrong, but I will not stand for the assertion that the hair and makeup happening on him is “good” and I will be filing a complaint with the Academy if they deem it as such come Oscar time.
As I started my search, I quickly discovered that there’s been plenty of articles devoted to the fact vs. fiction of The Last Duel, but few address the very pressing issue of hair, and historical depictions of the duel do not do much to help. Apparently, Damon’s mullet is arguably historically accurate and meaningful for the character, and the author of the book on which the movie is based told the Los Angeles Times that the haircuts “match up with what we know about the period.” Again I say: Hmmm. That's not much to go on, and there's certainly nothing here about a nobleman bleaching his hair over the sink with gloves and a squeeze bottle. I had to dig deeper.
In digging deeper, I learned more about a few obvious things (that people have dyed their hair for thousands of years) and a more about a few less obvious things (that they did so with leeches, henna, flowers, saffron, gold powder, calf kidneys, and sulfuric acid to name a few). I also learned, in a piece of history that is thematically appropriate with the film and history itself, that women did dye their hair in the Middle Ages and were derided for it but then men followed suit sometime later and let’s be honest, were probably given major awards in response (the history books won’t say it but I will).
None of this is exactly conclusive in answering the question, “Is Count Pierre d’Alençons as depicted by Ridley Scott and portrayed by Ben Affleck a hair bleaching king??” But my research did lead me to what might be the most germane information in all of my reading: Vikings bleached their hair and beards (to look cool and prevent lice) and used the same method as many others in the Middle Ages and beyond: lye. It might not be enough to fully close the case, but it’s enough to satisfy my hirsute curiosity. In my version of history, this fussy, rich brat dyed his hair and probably suffered for it. Good!
As this journey comes to a close, I’d be remiss not to mention that one reporter was actually brave enough to try to ask Ben about J.Lo’s thoughts on the hair, which he efficiently navigated out of by saying that the blonde was generally “divisive.” I absolutely love thinking about J.Lo watching this movie, a movie in which you never, not for a single second, forget that these famous contemporary actors are playing make-believe with silly costumes and wigs and that one of them is either fake dating (yeah, I said it!) or real dating J.Lo. But the hair did keep me entertained, curious, and eager to learn more, I’ll give it that. Now I’ll wait for the sequel (there won't be a sequel) to see how these magic makers use the hair and makeup department to show the passage of time.