Cinema and tennis are not the most obvious of bedfellows, but here we are with John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a film that’s part sports document and part film essay. The majority of the footage in the film is down to the work of a one man, Gil de Kermadec, who made numerous instructional films on how to play tennis, one of which plays at the beginning of this film. It’s amusing in its stilted nature, with the film’s subject having to reduce the fluid nature of his talent to rigid, repetitive movements for the benefit of the viewer. Moving forward, de Kermadec knew that no film could capture the true feeling of watching sport, but cinema could help us understand it.
For the purpose of this documentary, director Julian Faraut uses footage that de Kermadec filmed of hot head tennis player, John McEnroe in the run up to what would be his defeat in the 1984 French Open. Narrated by Matthieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Faraut carries on de Kermadec’s work, drawing a line from John McEnroe’s performance to that of any film director in the quest for career defining perfection. Case in point: using a montage of McEnroe’s infamous court side tantrums, the suggestion is made that the player, like the filmmaker, can become easily upset by those who do not understand his vision. To some this will be a revelation, for others it just underlines that McEnroe acted like a spoilt child who’d never been told no before.
It perhaps goes without saying that In the Realm of Perfection is unusual in its subject matter and its delivery, being both interesting and unbearably dry. Seemingly aware of this, Faraut throws in splashes of absurdity to mitigate the overt seriousness of Almaric’s narration; at times the film feels like every character in a Wes Anderson movie got up and made a documentary on tennis. Faraut stops the film to take time out in order to watch McEnroe rest between sets, he uses audio samples from Raging Bull to soundtrack McEnroe’s dummy spits, and most interestingly he shows how de Kermadec’s quest for sport realism effected the very people he was filming. Already bristling because of the presence of a press pool, we see McEnroe fit to burst as he becomes increasingly aware of de Kermadec’s crew dotted around the crowd; leading to one moment where the frustrated player threatens to force-feed someone his racquet.
Does the film work as a portrait of a sport star in his prime? In a way, yes. Like Douglas Gordon’s Zidane – which saw Gordon keep his cameras locked on footballer Zinedine Zidane for a whole match – there’s something hypnotic about watching McEnroe trapped within the confines of the frame; reacting to things only he is witnessing. Being forced to watch only him, you can’t help but study his movements which is likely the kind of thing de Kermadec wanted you to do in the first place.
A made for TV drama about gay life in contemporary France directed by Christophe Charrier. The first part of the film concerns the youth and awakening of the hero Jonas (Felix Maritaud recently seen in BPM). His mum is the more involved of the two parents. His dad is slightly coarse and macho and, we presume, not impressed by the idea of having a gay son.
When Jonas – already a bit of a loner – goes to his new high school he is ready to just survive by resisting the homophobic bullies and keeping his head down. Into his world walks the larger-than-life Nathan (Tommy Lee Baik), whose flamboyance and devil may care attitude captures Jonas’ heart. The boys pair up and all seems fine for a while. Then one day, they try to get into the eponymous gay night club Boys and are turned away for being underage.
Unwisely they accept a lift from an older man who is hanging around outside the club. That ride turns sour and although Jonas escapes, Nathan is abducted. This catastrophic event traumatises Jonas who ends up as an adult on the bottle and eking out an existence as a hospital porter.
The film is told with two different actors playing the adolescent and adult Jonas in two different time periods. The action constantly cuts between the two.
The broken Jonas is not an easy character to like and his self-loathing is in danger of alienating us as much as it does the characters he interacts with. That said, it is a committed and convincing portrait by Maritaud. Lee Baik is also a breath of fresh air, but he doesn’t have long to shine. One of the best performances in the film is that of Nathan’s mother (Aure Atika) and she also has one of the best scenes in the film when she confronts the adult Jonas with his choices.
Beyond showing the shy romance of the teens, the film does not dare to explore the physical side of their love which again is a reasonable choice for the approach, but makes the film a bit bloodless and evasive.
Promotional trailers for director Brady Corbet’s disturbing, edgy and deliberately uneven Vox Lux focus on the Madonna-like stadium show that Natalie Portman carries off in the movie’s final act. But it is the centre of the film where Portman’s rendering of a very damaged woman and her out of control narcissism and meltdown that is the powerhouse heart of Vox Lux.
Corbet’s debut feature The Childhood of a Leader explores the wealthy, dysfunctional and unhappy childhood of someone fated to become a fascist. Brady examines the notion that we don’t grow up in a vacuum, that we are forever harmed by the influences and traumas that shape us. The 10-year-old Prescott in Childhood is not redeemed, and Vox Lux takes a parallel journey. Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is an ordinary schoolgirl physically and emotionally wounded during the Columbine school massacre. She is thrown on a broken course that she never comes back from.
A modest musician, Celeste plays a self-penned song at the memorial service for the massacre victim and is from that moment a poster girl for tragedy and survival. Jude Law is the manager who discovers her and remains her co-dependent companion as she scales mega successful heights.
This is Law at his best in an intimate, chaotic portrayal of a man who loses all boundaries to become whatever Celeste needs in order to stay afloat.
Cassidy plays the teenage Celeste with a somewhat distant flavour, not entirely credible as the traumatised girl but she shines when she reappears as Celeste’s daughter, crushed and dimmed against Portman’s portrayal of a monstrous needy mother.
Corbett has an art house pedigree of acting roles in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Clouds of Sils Maria. He keeps us ever-aware of Celeste’s long-term damage by physicalising her dependence on a neck brace and painkillers, supplemented with booze and recreational drugs. Portman inhabits the character’s savage edgy movements and defiant vulnerability as the camera follows her backstage and through claustrophobic streets, dragging viewer and cast in its wake.
With art film sensibility, Corbett plays with repeated visual motifs that trigger associations and meaning. In the first Act, ‘Genesis’ are lights; street light, Christmas light and candlelight. A theme of speeding along highways and through tunnels is another.
Vox Lux isn’t a perfect film but here is a director willing to take risks in this thoughtful and disturbing look at what happens when we process collective grief by placing it on the shoulders of ordinary, broken people. Is the sheer fact of survival enough to give us hope? Enough to overlook Celeste’s emptiness at the heart of her quasi-religious, deeply cliched pop concerts? Perhaps – the pop numbers, performed with maximum sequins and filmed by an uncomfortably close camera, are soaring tunes from Australian musician Sia.
With all reports pointing to a box office disappointment, it looks like James Cameron [pictured with Rodriguez and producer Jon Landau] may have dodged a bullet when he passed Alita: Battle Angel for Robert Rodriguez to direct. But the Tex-Mex filmmaker wouldn’t have it any other way.