Here’s as thrilling a vision as you’re likely to see on a screen this year: young John McEnroe, in the short-shorts and curls of his peak years, tossing a tennis ball up above his head and then leaping, twisting, smashing his racket into it, blasting it across the rust-red clay court of Roland-Garros. We see this again and again, in fluid slow motion that invites us to regard it as we might the time-lapse blooming of a flower, or Eadweard Muybridge’s famous movement study of a horse’s gait. McEnroe’s airborne convulsions are complex, beautiful, balletic, slightly akimbo, fiercely intimidating, an act of will and rage performed beyond conscious thought. It is the gathering and release of a ferocious power. Adding to the sense of delicious might: Director Julien Faraut has scored this to the seedily rousing chug of Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.”
And making it even better: McEnroe himself didn’t want this filmed. The footage, like most of the searching cine-essay John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot in competition at the French Open in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker specializing in the study of tennis technique. The whir of the specialized camera equipped for slow-motion shots seemed a roar on a hushed tennis court, another distraction for the sensitive champion to rail against. De Kermadec, we learn, had come to believe that the performance of athletes in competition differed from their performance in drills or tutorials, so he captured them in actual matches. He produced a contemporary study of McEnroe’s technique, complete with early ‘80s computer animation charting every pivot of his serve. Faraut’s film draws upon that but is mostly assembled from a trove of 16 mm footage de Kermadec’s team shot at Roland-Garros between ‘81 and ‘85, often intimate close-ups of a great caught up in his greatness.
The invigorating first third investigates the fundamentals of McEnroe’s game. Actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric narrates, drawing our attention to McEnroe’s unpredictable backhand, his confidence rushing to the net for a drop shot, and what we could call the illegibility of his serve. Nothing in those gyrations offers any indication of where the ball might be headed. Especially revealing — moving, even — is a series of points where we only see McEnroe’s side of the court. We witness his serve, his tracking of the ball, his hustle to return the return, his intensity and concentration, the union of strategic thinking and peak-human reflexes.
Much of the film, as you might expect, is given over to its star’s on-court outbursts. What becomes clear, watching McEnroe harangue line judges and intrusive photographers, is that the rages were birthed in a disappointed agony, a disgust at a world with inhabitants who persistently failed to see what he did. “Show me the mark,” he says, insistently, repeatedly, to chair umpires, seeking the overthrow of a call. Shrewdly, Faraut never offers us a replay, leaving us to stew in McEnroe’s aggrieved certainty. Somewhat inevitably, Amalric’s narration becomes a psychological and philosophical interrogation of McEnroe, offering extended comparisons of the athlete to a film director (those drop shots are his way of calling “cut!”) or an actor, particularly Tom Hulce, who studied tennis’ enfant terrible for his starring turn as Vienna’s problematic child prodigy in Amadeus.
Some of these assertions prove more convincing than others, but what’s indisputable is the suspenseful power of the film’s final stretch, a timestamped walk-through of the French Open’s 1984 men’s final. McEnroe, that year enjoying what is still the highest win rate in the sport’s history, at first seems to be cruising to an easy victory over Czechoslovakia’s Ivan Lendl. But then something goes wrong. From there, Faraut’s film doesn’t just put us courtside — it steeps us in the legend’s boiling mind.