John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Matthieu Almaric (narrator)
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…at times the film feels like every character in a Wes Anderson movie got up and made a documentary on tennis.
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.