I wrote the following review of Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, my favorite documentary of 2018, for this week’s Cine-File Chicago. It opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run today.
Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
The starting point for this fascinating and endlessly surprising documentary by Julien Faraut was the director’s discovery of a previously unseen cache of 16mm film rolls dating from the mid-1980s that featured John McEnroe at Roland Garros, the tennis tournament commonly known as the “French Open.” This archival footage was originally shot by another director, Gil de Kermadec, for a series of instructional films that began in the 1960s and for which McEnroe, the controversial world number one who helped popularize tennis when it first became widely televised, served as the final subject. De Kermadec shot more than 20 times the amount of footage that he needed for his official portrait of McEnroe, more than he captured of any other player, and the awesome “leftover” footage provided an audiovisual goldmine for Faraut’s idiosyncratic essay film. The younger director eschews most non-fiction filmmaking norms – there are no contemporary interviews, and his witty, scripted narration, spoken in voice-over by actor Mathieu Amalric in English, makes no attempt to offer any sort of conventional context for who McEnroe is or why he was important to the sport. Instead, Faraut uses de Kermadec’s footage as an investigative tool to make an in-depth study of the beauty and creativity of McEnroe’s playing style, and to draw parallels between tennis and cinema. This wildly unorthodox approach is apparent from an opening quotation by tennis fan Jean-Luc Godard (“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”), which is swiftly followed by an excerpt of a ridiculous early tennis-training film in black-and-white, then a gangbusters montage in glorious 16mm color, irresistibly scored to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl,” of McEnroe’s distinctive lefty serve on the burnt-orange clay surface of Roland Garros’ center court. Later, Faraut analyzes de Kermadec’s unusual technique of using medium shots to focus on a single player in three-quarters profile by noting that viewers of this type of shot are not like typical tennis spectators. As we watch McEnroe (but, crucially, not his opponent) scramble along the baseline, expertly mixing slices with flat hitting, Amalric’s narration informs us that we are being invited to discover “with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.” Slow-motion shots break down McEnroe’s movement even further, showing “what the eye cannot see,” as Faraut makes comparisons between de Kermadec’s footage and the “chronophotographic” cinema experiments of the late 19th century. Faraut also invokes critic Serge Daney, who noted that one of the chief pleasures of the movies is the way they seemingly “invent time,” by contrasting the more fixed timetable of other sporting events with the way a tennis match’s unpredictable duration is determined by the ability of the players. McEnroe’s notorious temper tantrums are analyzed at length for their performative quality – in the film’s most outrageous conceit, Faraut overdubs a McEnroe tirade against a linesperson with a famous passage of dialogue from RAGING BULL in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta harangues his younger brother (“Did you fuck my wife?”) – while McEnroe the player is elsewhere provocatively compared to a filmmaker. In Faraut’s analogy, the frequency with which McEnroe comes to the net to end points swiftly is akin to a director calling “Cut!” The only sequence in all of JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION that resembles anything close to a traditional sports biography comes during a suspenseful climax when Faraut shows a condensed version – complete with onscreen time-clock – of McEnroe’s see-saw 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl (a Czechoslovakian player whose lanky, gaunt figure, sunken cheeks, dark features and humorless demeanor made him the tennis equivalent of NOSFERATU’s Count Orlok), a match whose outcome gives this splendid movie its poignant and ironic subtitle. (2018, 95 min, DCP) MGS