Film Review: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

This quirky French doc about tennis great turned star commentator John McEnroe in his 1980s heyday may irk serious fans in other realms, as it often puts an unsportsmanlike artsy spin on a beloved sport.
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Tennis, anyone? Probably not everyone, if referring to tennis-obsessed writer-director Julien Faraut’s experimental doc John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.

So what might be the response to this oddball Oscilloscope Pictures release that focuses on the once-beloved bad-boy tennis champ in his prime while going cross-court with cinematic, aesthetic, philosophical and psychological slices? Even “Hawkeye,” tennis’ official high-tech line caller, would be stymied. In other words (pardon the mangled famous Chinatown line), some may need comforting with “Forget it, tennis fans, we’re in French terrain.” 

Others, especially cinephiles and Francophiles, will take to this curiosity, even if there are unintended whiffs of a satiric take in the first half of the film. This is due to so much over-intellectualization by Faraut, inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s notion that “cinema lies, sport doesn’t.” (Forget that conflicting Godard axiom that “the cinema is truth 24 frames per second.”)

Faraut, also editing here, packs this doc almost entirely with archival material of McEnroe’s golden early-’80s years at Paris’ Roland Garros Stadium, as a number of championships came his way in this period. Most of the material comprises rushes filmed at the time by director Gil de Kermadec with the cinematographic service of the Institut National du Sport et de l’Education Physique (INSEP).

Beloved French star (and sometime director with an experimental bent) Mathieu Amalric narrates, often going as lofty as a fine service toss. “The image we have of ourselves rarely tallies with how others see us” is just one of his attempts to elevate the doc and fortify its theme that tennis and cinema (or tennis and drama) are related.

The early court footage is such that only the remarkable McEnroe is in the frame making his shots, while little or nothing is seen of his unidentified opponents. But tennis fans will get a good sense of McEnroe’s terrific strategy and technique, a varied package—assuring his trademark unpredictability—of seemingly impossible shot angles, expertise at the net (less practiced today because of newer powerful racquets), drop shots and serves that defy expectations.

Also lobbed in the earlier scenes are brief stadium shots of his parents (his mom declares he always was obsessed with winning) and commentary from a psychologist who tries to decipher the champ. (McEnroe can freak out, but he has the gift of remaining efficient and highly observant in spite of the outbursts. Or, he gets angry at what he thinks are bad calls because he’s a perfectionist and requires the same of his umpires.)

As voiceover commentator, Amalric strives to strengthen the doc’s tennis-cinema kinship, which comes by way of meditations on how both manipulate time or relate to the almighty camera.

Even a vintage instructional tennis film and some animation come into play for this tennis-cinema pas de deux. And what would a film about McEnroe be without “Mac” at his brattiest. Thus, adding color and amusement here are his famous on-court antics (mumbling, talking to himself, etc.) and certainly arguing line calls with the umpires (“Show me the mark, show me the mark!!”).

Because McEnroe is likened to Mozart, the doc also gives us clips from Amadeus and pieces of Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto (in addition to its largely weird and unnerving original electronic music score).

Mercifully, after so many smashes at attempted profundity, the doc’s second half delivers narrative relief and plenty of good old-fashioned suspense as the historic 1984 Garros French Open final unfolds with McEnroe and Czech rival Ivan Lendl (in full view) playing against each other in the famous match (no spoiler here except to say the lengthy sequence is pretty delicious).

Because this film’s capture footage was 16mm, much looks old-fashioned—grainy, hokey with the occasional blurry pan, the squarish screen ratio, etc. But it’s a nice, nostalgic flashback to the somewhat funky Bolex indies of yore.

Like so much of France itself, this French shot at tennis is worth a detour. The film’s release conveniently coincides with the great U.S. Open Tennis Championship in Queens, where McEnroe grew up and where he regularly serves as a star ESPN commentator.