John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection French doco sheer theatricality

John McEnroe.
John McEnroe.

FOR those of us who lived through the McEnroe tennis era, this French documentary will rapidly transport you back to an emotional landscape you might have left behind.

This scowling, growling, petulant presence simply could not be ignored, not least because the American ace was the pre-eminent player in the world at the time.

Yet John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection takes a ponderous, oblique and decidedly French approach to this subject.

Did I say pretentious? Perhaps. There is a quote from French auteur Jean Luc Godard and it feels more like film school than any sport doco you’ve ever seen.

You can be guaranteed of not having had a sport documentary experience quite like this one.

The basis of the film is the 16mm films of Gil de Kermadec, the first national technical director of tennis in France. First, we see his early attempts at classic sport instruction, based around the repetition of strokes. Eventually, the filmmaker would decide that strokes produced in contrived, possibly sterile circumstances did not equate to what actually happened on a tennis court in real time, with a real opponent.

Director and writer Julien Faraut, who has worked for years with the French Sports Institute, comes across de Kermadec’s voluminous match library from Roland Garros, the home of the French Open clay tournament.

He is struck by the endless footage of McEnroe as the enfant terrible (there’s a well-placed French expression for you).

This found footage becomes the documentary. Like a famous doco-style precursor, there are elements of horror as well as exultation here: a Glare Twitch Project with a highly idiosyncratic protagonist, as the rebellious genius progresses through the 1984 tournament.

John McEnroe.

It takes quite a while to adjust your vision to what you’re presented with here. De Kermadec was creating films rather than simply broadcasting matches, so there was an intimacy not usually experienced when tuning in to a match.

This was particularly the case in the ’80s, when commentators gave us their best all-white, conservative commentary that seemed to skirt around the mayhem often witnessed in a match featuring the pugilistic New Yorker.

We get an acute sense of the loneliness of players, of the type elucidated in Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open. Then there is the sheer artistry of McEnroe’s play, the perfectionist streak that Faraut attributes to those meltdowns; if he was giving every bit of himself to creating the spectacle, why wasn’t everyone else, he seems to ask?

Watching the player responding to umpires’ calls is to experience the very deepest sense of injustice, whether he was guilty or not. How would we ever know prior to Hawk-Eye line-calling technology?

The doco culminates in the final against arch nemesis Ivan Lendl, the bloodless technician who was nevertheless unafraid to take on the gifted left-hander head to head.

This is one for the sports nuts willing to suspend their usual expectations of sport footage. For the rest, perhaps the sheer theatricality will suffice.


John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Director: Julien Faraut

Narrator: Mathieu Amalric

Four stars

Review: Martin Turner