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.