John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

 

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A documentary which is far more surprising than you would ever expect.

 
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

  

Here is a film which declares its hand at the outset. It does so by offering a quote from Jean-Luc Godard: “Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”. Yes, this is a documentary centred on the famed tennis player John McEnroe which, adopting a deeply intellectual approach, proves to be a film that could only have been made in France. Indeed my rating above is essentially given in recognition of its originality, for Julien Faraut’s film is not without weaknesses (until it settles for treating McEnroe’s 1984 match against the Czech Ivan Lendl as its detailed climax, it offers many a sequence that can feel arbitrary in length and structurally it is ready to adopt a gadfly mode rather than building meaningfully). Furthermore, potential viewers expecting an orthodox sport documentary may well find it difficult to adjust to what is on offer.

 

Even in terms of the material used, Faraut’s film is unusual. He is an archivist and that is the source of this work. In 1985 Gil de Kermadec, a specialist filmmaker over the previous twenty years or so and one who had started out with instructional studies recording tennis players, shot a vast amount of footage of McEnroe at Roland-Garros stadium but only used enough of it to produce a work lasting fifty minutes. The unused rushes now feature at length as selected by Faraut in pursuit of his own aims. De Kermadec himself had disdained standard television coverage of matches and concentrated instead on individual players. Building on that, Faraut uses the old footage to contemplate the demands that the game puts on its participants, to draw out parallels between cinema and tennis (the relevant writings on tennis of film critic Serge Daney are quoted) and to ponder McEnroe’s personality in depth. This last aspect includes examples of McEnroe’s famed disputes with referees but seeks to go deeper by suggesting that key characteristics then displayed were formed by experiences in childhood and led to a theatricality deployed on the court. The latter apparently influenced Tom Hulce when he was preparing to play Mozart in Amadeus (1984) (but including shots from that film’s trailer is less valuable than comments from the actor might have been).

 

However, Faraut’s additions made by way of music and talk on the soundtrack, prove to be at their most fascinating when he encourages Dr. Cédric Quignon-Fleuret to offer a psychological analysis of McEnroe. Stressing that McEnroe was one of the few great players in this highly competitive sport (“a sport for killers”) who let his inner demons come to the surface, he suggests that McEnroe’s compulsion to win actually thrived on his sense of being in a hostile environment. Elsewhere digressions and odd playful touches (such as describing it as a break in the film when a temporary hiatus halts play and sees the players sitting it out) feel decidedly bizarre. Nevertheless, its strikingly intellectual tone undoubtedly makes this film one of a kind. At its best, it is fascinating, and you will never see another tennis documentary like it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and contributions from Cédric Quignon-Fleuret, Jacques Pernod and Nicolas Thibault and with Mathieu Amalric (narrator).

 

Dir Julien Faraut, Pro William Jéhannin and Raphaëlle Delauche, Screenplay Julien Faraut, Ed Andrei Bogdanov. Original footage directed by Gil de Kermadec and with Michel Delicourt, Jacques Ribaud and Jean-Philippe Vaillard as camera operators.

 

UFO Production/CNC - Centre National du Cinéma et de l'Image Animée-Modern Films.
95 mins. France. 2018. Rel: 24 May 2019. Cert. 12A.