Movie Review: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Really? Another Mac movie? It was only back in April that my husband and I found ourselves all by our lonesomes in a cinema in Salem for the opening of Borg vs. McEnroe.

Yesterday, I dragged my long-suffering husband to the Museum of Fine Arts to see this latest John McEnroe movie, a French indie film by Julien Faraut. (For those of you in the Boston area, the MFA will show it five more times between now and November 30.)

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection comes to the screen by way of footage shot by Gil de Kermadec at the 1984 French Open. De Kermadec was dissatisfied with earlier tennis instruction videos, believing they gave a distorted picture of how individual athletes actually played.

De Kermadec began making video studies of professional tennis players in their matches, capturing not the match itself, but the movements of the single athlete. The opponents typically didn’t appear in these videos at all. McEnroe was the last of the athletes De Kermadec studied. It’s from this archival footage that Faraut produces this film.

For brevity, I’ll refer to this movie as In the Realm. Why not John McEnroe? Because despite the title, the movie isn’t really about John McEnroe. It’s about a range of Big Questions, like the veracity of sport versus cinema, and tennis skill versus tennis talent, and what drives the pursuit of perfection.

In pursuing these questions, Faraut takes a kaleidoscopic, almost surreal approach, and the film is earning praise for pushing the boundaries of the sports documentary genre. Faraut bombards the viewer with contemporary and classical music, philosophical quotes, stick figure animation, old instructional reels, and popular movie snippets.

And, of course, there’s the footage of McEnroe himself. We watch him confront linesmen and chair umpires. We watch him gesture in disbelief at ball marks. Over and over, we watch his iconic serve: the low, two-handed swinging dip at the ground and the wind-up to the inimitable spread-eagle back-to-the-net trophy position.

Best of all, we get to watch him volley, all fluid instinct and artistry. More than once, his deft touch drew gasps from the people sitting around me.

But rather than getting inside the head of McEnroe, Faraut holds him up to the light like a butterfly specimen, turning him this way and that. We watch how he moves and how he reacts to external stimuli, like questionable calls and intrusive photographers. Faraut maintains a scientific distance from McEnroe, a tone that’s particularly jarring in the film’s dry, almost clinical narration accompanying footage of the final against Ivan Lendl. It’s as if we’re watching a National Geographic special.

Still, In the Realm does have its charms. We learn, for instance, that while Tom Hulce was preparing for his role as Mozart in the movie Amadeus, he studied McEnroe’s on-court behavior. The movie hilariously mines this fact, pairing Mozart’s swelling music with McEnroe’s infamous mannerisms–the hands-on-the-hips stares, the pouts, the whole repertoire. It’s like a little opera on the terre battue.

In the Realm even managed to evoke in me a little more sympathy for McEnroe’s outbursts. There’s a claustrophobic feel to the camera work, its intense training on his every move. In the vast stadium, McEnroe’s square of ground begins to feel very small. When he’s walking around between points or telling cameramen to get their microphones out of his face, it’s as if you’re watching a caged animal at the zoo, pacing and agitated at the close quarters and the people peering in at him.

As compelling as In the Realm can be, Faraut ultimately seems more enamored of his own artistry than McEnroe’s. It makes for an unusual documentary. It’s not a bad film–I’d recommend it for those with an appetite for adventurous cinema. I just wish I’d come out of the theater knowing more about McEnroe than when I went in.

10 thoughts on “Movie Review: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

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  1. Ah, we do love that bad boy, don’t we? Can’t get enough of him, it seems. It’s nice to hear that the film focused on more than his outbursts — and perhaps even made them seem a bit understandable. His playing should get some of the limelight! It sounds like an interesting movie to watch.

    Your description reminds me of some very artistic films, like Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987). I’d be curious to compare it to the great work of propaganda: Olympia, the 1938 German documentary sports film written, directed and produced by Leni Riefenstahl, documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany. (quoted from Wikipedia).

    Sounds like it was a more entertaining evening that the last McEnroe film, even if it wasn’t really so much about the man himself. As for men, yes, your husband is a gem.

    1. It was entertaining and interesting, and the more time that passes, the more I warm to it. It’s just not what I expected. The title could have been more helpful. Maybe something like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at John McEnroe” or “Through the Lens: De Kermadec and John McEnroe” would have clued me in to the film’s arty aspirations.

      Plus, as I was watching the film, I was thinking, “How am I going to describe THIS in the blog?” So I probably wasn’t allowing myself to be as immersed in the movie as I could have been.

      I haven’t seen Wings of Desire or Olympia Obviously I need to expand my sports documentary knowledge. I’ll be very curious to hear what other people make of this film, and any comparisons they can make to other films.

      And yes, my husband’s a keeper, for sure. 😊

    1. I was asked by a few people today whether they should see the movie. My vote is yes, if you’re a John McEnroe fan. I didn’t love the movie, but I’m glad I saw it. I will say that the critics are quite positive about the movie, some even calling it the greatest sports documentary ever made. And they review movies for a living, so perhaps their opinions should carry more weight than mine!

      My husband promises to chime in with his opinion shortly…

  2. Karla, I answered your question, but my reply disappeared for some reason. The movie’s mostly in English with a French accent. There are a few segments with subtitles.

  3. I saw the movie with Deb. I got the sense that Deb was more disappointed in the film than not, so I’ll just add my two cents. Consider this as augmenting Deb’s perspective, not contradicting it.

    I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in, other than the fact that I was about to see “a documentary about John McEnroe”. As the film unfolded, what I realized is that the documentary was centered entirely around repurposing 30-40 year old sports film that was recorded for a very specific purpose — detailed analysis of the world’s best tennis athletes. I did not know this ahead of time. The basic ingredients of the film DID NOT include a bunch of generic old film like home movies of the McEnroe’s — it was basically all raw tennis court action, including everything happening between the points, in the stands, etc. There were two or three very brief non-tennis clips of a McEnroe interview (all of a single sentence), a photo shoot, walking through the airport, etc. There were several minutes devoted to de Kermadec himself and his technical team. Finally, there were bits of animation, old training film, etc. connecting things together. I’d say the content was 75% action film of McEnroe on the court and everything associated with the court, artfully arranged, edited, and augmented with funny sound effects or music, and overlayed with commentary by the producer and others (e.g., a psychologist explaining McEnroe’s head deal). Lots of tiny details like facial expressions, picking lint off his shirt before a serve, etc. were sprinkled in, and there was quite a bit of commentary covering McEnroe’s drive for perfection, why he was so angry all the time, etc., all of which was interesting from strictly a John McEnroe perspective.

    While 75% was court-related, the particular focus of the commentary was not necessarily JUST McEnroe, but de Kermadec’s film itself — his process, what they were capturing, and how. An interesting aspect of the film content for me (being into audio production) was some of the “technical” detail of what de Kermadec was doing, how he did it, and why he did it. For example, explaining the complications involved in trying to silence a high frame-rate film camera (120 frames/sec for slow motion) in a totally silent stadium. Because of the speed of the film, the camera reel makes a VERY audible “whirring” sound. That’s a problem! Or the sound guy fighting for space in the photographer’s pit next to the court. There were many other interesting anecdotes, backing info, technical tidbits, etc., and quite a bit of time and attention was given to that.

    In many respects, the film was (almost) as much about de Kermadec and his films as it was about McEnroe himself. Actually, I’ll go with “as much”. Pretty sneaky! I had no idea previously about de Kermadec, what he did, what the significance of his work was, etc., nor would I have cared. On the other hand, everybody knows who John McEnroe is. Could it be: the film brought de Kermadec’s seemingly inconsequential life’s work to the forefront using a “John McEnroe documentary” exterior? If so, the producer focused on the professional life of a world-renowned athlete in order to expose the professional life of some obscure filmmaker. So that’s pretty cool.

    Oh oh oh! If you want to take it a step further, consider this: the documentarian went to great lengths describing de Kermadec’s purpose and methodologies. de Kermadec had a specific FILM problem, and the documentary described in detail how he approached and solved his FILM problem — how he dealt with camera placement and angles and sound and focal points and 3/4 shots and whatever else it is that film people worry about. Doesn’t that make the documentary as much a film ABOUT FILM and FOR other filmmakers? I think it might. And I just realized something else: Deb wasn’t totally enthralled with this film as a “John McEnroe documentary”, and if I’m on the right track, that’s because John McEnroe was only one aspect of the film. It was a documentary by a filmmaker, about a filmmaker, for other filmmakers. So… in that respect, “kinda cool”, but (agreeing with Deb here) not a totally mind-blowing documentary experience as far as John McEnroe goes, if that’s what you’re looking for.

    Leaving the theatre my overall reaction was that the documentary was really making “something” out of “nothing”, and in that respect it was a unique and interesting documentary. More of an artistic endeavor than a facts-n-figures documentary. At the begining of the film the producer had brief clips and descriptions of the documentary process, showing shelves upon shelves of de Kermadec film rolls. That’s when I realized that this stuff was just sitting there, and would have likely just ended up in a dumpster at some point many years down the road… and that’s really why the documentary was made I think.

    Overall, I’d say the movie is worth seeing for it’s uniqueness, and if you understand what you’re getting into. I.e., not just a straight-laced documentary.

    1. Total genius! I know his Grand Slam haul can’t compare to Fed and the rest of them, but I think he ought to be in the mix when people talk about the greatest of all time.

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