Ridley Scott blames mobile phones – not Disney’s marketing, not the grimness of the material, not rival attractions such as Halloween Kills – for the calamitous box office failure of The Last Duel, his dour historical epic about a French noblewoman’s rape and her husband’s revenge. The film has taken $28m from a $100m budget, and there, in a stroke, go its awards hopes, even though it is Scott’s best-reviewed picture since The Martian in 2015.
Perhaps millennials – or “the millennian”, per Scott’s otherworldly solecism – were too busy watching The Martian on their iPhones? (It’s on Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and all the rest.) Every film is reduced to streamable content sooner or later, but Scott’s pronouncement specifically rails against the formats in which a younger generation prefer to absorb things – those “who do not ever want to be taught anything unless you’re told it on a cell phone.”
I think it’s Scott’s choice of the word “taught”, rather than the phone argument per se, which exposes the true reasons why The Last Duel was an off-putting commercial proposition. With its three angles on sexual assault, not to mention the careful hiring of a female screenwriter, Nicole Holofcener, to explore the victim’s point of view, it looked like a teachable moment retold in triplicate; it had a whiff of work.
We wait to see whether Scott’s House of Gucci, opening this week, falls foul of the same curse. With its meme-able curiosity factor, split reviews and Lady Gaga – practically the reigning queen of Planet Millennian – it might just lure enough of Scott’s least favourite age group to take a break from Twitter threads explaining why they aren’t watching his films, at least for the 158 minutes it would cost them to consume it.
Scott is by no means the first filmmaker of his generation to rue the day that smartphones came into our pockets. Way back in 2008, on the DVD extras for Inland Empire, David Lynch chimed in by saying: “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film.” I happen to think Inland Empire is an abrasive masterpiece, and also doubt that anyone has ever got through its maddeningly elliptical, rough and arduous three-hour running time on a mobile phone, certainly not in one sitting: it would almost be a weird kind of art experiment to try it.