John McEnroe is having a bit of a moment, at least on movie screens. You might assume that it doesn’t get any better than being played by Shia LaBeouf in a mediocre biopic, but the notoriously volatile tennis legend has — by little virtue of his own — somehow become the subject of an even more remarkable tribute that’s been decades in the making. Julien Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is a sports documentary unlike any other, a beguiling and delightful piece of visionary non-fiction that uses its namesake to investigate the ontological nature of watching tennis.
Wait, keep reading! It’s a lot more interesting than it might sound. Entirely culled together from hours and hours of gorgeous 16mm footage shot by Gil de Kermadec (the former technical director of the French Tennis Federation), Faraut’s hypnotic portrait looks at the game through the lens of film theory, recasting one of its most emotional and demanding athletes as something of an auteur. Between Andrei Bogdanov’s mesmeric stitch-work and Mathieu Amalric’s dreamlike narration, it isn’t long before you start to see McEnroe as a director, editor, and star all in on, the player stretching time from inside his spotlight and calling “cut!” with the conclusion of each rally.
Re-examining the red clay of Roland Garros through the microscope of McEnroe’s petulant genius, “In the Realm of Perfection” essentially reflects the act of playing sports against the experience of watching them. With these reels of grainy old video — and through the peculiar style in which Gil de Kermadec shot them, isolating each player so that it looks as if McEnroe were out there in a match against himself — Faraut is able to conflate the cinema’s quixotic obsession with reality with the athlete’s similarly impossible dream of perfection. In its own playful way, his film celebrates the beautiful folly of both pursuits.
When de Kermadec first started to film tennis at the French Open, he recorded the players as they performed demonstrations on empty practice courts. The speed blimps were loud on those old cameras, and the world was slow to recognize how motion pictures could reveal a sport’s hidden secrets. Looking over his practice footage of players illustrating their ideal movements — the perfect serve, the textbook backhand — de Kermadec found a huge discrepancy between how tennis stars thought they were playing, and what their form was actually like during the heat of a match. As Amalric’s narration puts it: “The image we have of ourselves rarely ever tallies with the image that others see.”
McEnroe saw himself as Mozart, and Faraut does his subject the favor of intercutting footage from “Amadeus.” But the tennis player wasn’t always in control of his talents, and Faraut isn’t always so flattering. At one, he layers audio from “Raging Bull” over images of McEnroe throwing a tantrum on the base line, blurring the line between art and athletics. It’s hard to extricate the two from each other, and not only because we see how the act of filming McEnroe could get in his head and mess up his game.
There’s also the cinematographic texture of de Kermadec’s 16mm footage, and the unbridled theatricality of McEnroe’s behavior — the guy played tennis like he was performing a one-man show, and he would swear a hole right through the fourth wall if he ever flubbed a line. Not that McEnroe really believed in unforced errors: So far as he was concerned, any mistakes could always be blamed on the audiences or the line judges. Faraut recounts how de Kermadec was struck by the immersion that shooting McEnroe involved: “We were not in the process of watching John McEnroe, nor a film about John McEnroe. We were actually the cameraman on the set of a film that was in the process of being made.” And sometimes they would troll their leading man.
Not that “In the Realm of Perfection” has much interest in taking the piss out of a genuine all-timer, and an artist in his own right. If anything, Faraut is too enamored with McEnroe; the film only settles us in to a particular match during its final stretch, by which point we’ve already learned what we can by watching its subject get flustered and implode. Each rally is a compelling drama unto itself, but Faraut has no interest in creating a broader narrative that might link them together.
Instead, he leaves us to look at one of McEnroe’s greatest defeats through a new pair of eyes, to better appreciate how the hall-of-famer’s brilliance was born from his imperfections, and not remembered in spite of them. It’s hard to say if Faraut agrees with Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim that “cinema lies — sports doesn’t,” but this fascinating work of found footage leaves the distinct impression that people only tend to believe what they can see for themselves.
“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” opens in theaters on August 22nd.