John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is an immersive, impressive and elegant ethnographic film essay that revisits 16mm footage of John McEnroe during the 1984 Roland-Garros French Open. The fiery, left-handed McEnroe was then ranked the world’s number one player and had several singles and doubles Grand Slam titles to his name. Breezing through the early stages of the tournament playing a sublime form of tennis that elevated him far above his mere mortal peers, he seemed on an unstoppable path to certain victory. Meeting the implacable Ivan Lendl in the final, a rival similar in calm, cool and collected temperament to old nemesis Björn Borg, McEnroe raced into a two sets to love lead but then began to psychologically unravel, losing control of his emotions and ultimately gifting Lendl, whom he had accused of being ‘chicken’ earlier in the match, an unlikely comeback and first Grand Slam title. A visibly stricken McEnroe, hollow-eyed and ashen-faced by the finale, would be haunted by the defeat for the rest of his career. Lendl would go on to dominate the sport for the next five years, but still end up a serial loser at Wimbledon.
Written and directed by Julien Faraut and narrated by actor/director Mattheu Amalric in a calm, even tone distinctly at odds with McEnroe’s expletive laden outbursts, the film emerged when Faraut was granted access to footage shot by Gil de Kermadec, who as the first national technical director of tennis in France had produced a basic study of tennis in 1966. Attempting to use cinematic techniques as a basis for analysis, de Kermadec arranged for professional players to demonstrate movements and shot executions in fixed positions in front of spectators before matches at Roland-Garros. These demonstrations were captured on film. Three years later, de Karmedec requested that camera lenses be turned on the Roland Garros tournament itself to more authentically portray the reality of playing in the heat of competition. From 1977 de Kermadec began to concern himself with attempting to understand what makes each player unique, which would ultimately lead him to intensive and, given the noise of the relatively primitive cameras at courtside, intrusive cataloguing of McEnroe, a man who ‘played on the edge of his senses’ and who self-confessedly thrived on hostility. Suffice to say, the fiercely private and combustible American was less than delighted by the attention.
If this all points to an enjoyment or even passing interest in tennis—or any other sport for that matter—being a pre-requisite for an appreciation of this wholly fascinating, witty and meticulously executed documentary, rest assured, it isn’t. This is a film that is less about sport and more about reaching for greatness and untouchability and the ensuing existential crisis when, within sight of this goal, you contrive to fall short. From the jaws of victory…humbling defeat. In this sense, and in its sheer technical achievement it’s reminiscent of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), and even comes complete with its own superlative score, the hum of Sonic Youth replacing Zidane’s throbbing Mogwai. As a philosophical study in psycho-dramatics and ennui, Substitute (2007), by former French international footballer Vikash Dhorasoo is another frame of sporting film reference. Lovers of primitive analog computer technology and 1980s graphics and typography may find themselves enticed by fond memories of Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013).
Faraut brilliantly probes the archival film stock to unpack both McEnroe’s attention to the sport and the footage itself, creating a compelling and frequently poetic look at a driven athlete, the human body and movement, and finally how these all intersect with cinema itself. The director contrasts the intense close-ups and slow motion sequences of McEnroe’s physical prowess and obvious technical superiority with his increasingly unhinged tirades, outwardly directed toward referees and line judges he deemed incompetent (and frequently they were certainly guilty of doing their jobs incorrectly whilst the player himself did his to the very best of his ability), but just as much a result of his own tortured and fragile psyche.
The project began as an assignment that was seemingly thrust upon Faraut, who had served as a fifteen-year-long employee of the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP). The director favored abstraction, taking inspiration from a passage in Jean Epstein’s Esprit de cinéma. “No particular kind of subject guarantees the success of a film and no particular kind of subject necessarily leads to a failure. In that way the truest and most profound subject of any painting is the painting itself: the truest and most profound subject of any film cannot be anything other than cinema.” A film that manages to somehow invoke Andrei Tarkovsky’s notion of sculpting in time, the precocious, prodigious and truculent genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and De Niro’s ‘Did you fuck my wife’ speech from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is, in tennis parlance, a straight ace.