John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

(Julien Faraut, France, 2018)


Anger, Rage & Violence


Julien Faraut works in the audiovisual archive of France’s Institut National de Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance (INSEP). As is recounted in John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, a serendipitous path led him to an extraordinary bounty squirreled away in his own workplace: the complete rushes on 16 millimetre of a documentary portrait of John McEnroe directed by Gil de Kermadec (1922-2011), shot at the Roland-Garros stadium in 1985. His Roland Garros avec John McEnroe originally resulted in a montage of 50 minutes.


That complete filmic record was, however, only incidentally about the man and his motivations; first and foremost, it was intended for professionals and fans of the sport as a means of minutely analysing McEnroe’s unusual and unique style of play. Faraut takes the initial mountain of footage, re-edits and reworks it, and discovers fresh perspectives arising from it.


John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is a splendid essay-film that keeps taking delightful left turns. Diversions lead us happily astray and parentheses open up. For example, mention of the fact that Roland-Garros was built on the same site in Parc du Princes as the famous Station physiologique triggers a reverie on the “ghosts” of cinematic pioneers Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demenÿ, with their scientific attempts to break down movement in images.


Elsewhere, the film interrupts itself to detail, in excruciating mundanity, how McEnroe ordered the clay court to be re-swept mid-game. Likewise, a time-code clocks for us (in a manner reminiscent of the “minute of silence” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part) the 120 seconds it takes for McEnroe to be sufficiently ready to execute a serve.


In the Realm of Perfection appears to start out as a documentary on de Kermadec – which is itself an essayistic ruse, creating false, conventional expectations that it will then merrily shatter. It begins by retracing de Kermadec’s steps from his first, rather clumsy “instructional” films of 1966 – showing players adopting stiff, ideal tennis poses – to the dynamic form of multi-camera documentary shooting he developed to record star players in the heat of the game.


For de Kermadec, it was all a matter of positioning, finding the best angle to capture every subtle, intricate movement of the human body in action. He even created a “pit” behind the player to get a low, close angle on proceedings – an intrusion that McEnroe frequently complained about, especially when the slow-motion camera motor whirred too loudly for his liking.


However, despite having one camera out of the three shooting a wide angle on the whole field, de Kermadec was not at all interested in providing complete coverage of any match from both sides of the net (as television normally does); he focused on only one player for each project. This constraint inherent in the material provides Faraut with both his biggest boon and his greatest challenge.


At a certain point about 20 minutes in, de Kermadec is literally lost from our view – he can be only fleetingly glimpsed, somewhere in the stadium, directing his crew via remote control. Attention then goes to the raw footage itself, complete with wandering camera movements and the ever-present thump on the microphone to mark the end of a take (in interviews, Faraut admits he became especially fond of including those moments when the sound recordist, Jacques Pernot, appears in the same frame as grumpy McEnroe).


De Kermadec was not really interested in exploring the psychology of players for his documentaries, but Faraut allows himself some speculations in this area. McEnroe’s intense psychological state is probed for its possible source in his family background; so, too, is the intriguing, reversible relation between the reality of McEnroe on the court and the outsize media image he generated, which inspired Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart in Milos Forman’s overrated Amadeus (1984).


Above all, there is a close attentiveness to the almost supernatural capacities of McEnroe as someone who “played on the edge of his senses”, aware of the slightest sound or change in ambience. Later, the audio testimony of one Dr Cédric Quignon-Fleuret outlines an elaborate psychological theory of emotional control in sport – and how McEnroe contradicted the usual tendency by channelling and marshalling the “negative emotions” of “anger, rage and violence” into his winning play, rather than letting those feelings destabilise him.


When it comes, finally, to the negative emotions of the crowd itself – their booing, hissing and jeering of McEnroe and his “bad boy” tactics – we might infer that, as in Janus Metz Pederson’s stirring biopic recreation Borg vs McEnroe (2018), our anti-hero stands for a disconcerting “new wave” of ruthless, American-style strategising.


On the contrary, Faraut sees McEnroe’s ultimate nemesis, Ivan Lendl, as announcing the advent of a sleekly programmed, hyper-trained, super-efficient technique that heralds a “death of tennis”, just as film critics spoke, in the same, mid 1980s period, of a “death of cinema”.


That looming death of cinema is an idea primarily associated with French critic Serge Daney (1944-1992). Cinephiles who are also into film criticism will no doubt be pleased that so much attention is paid to Daney in In the Realm of Perfection – there is, in fact, more of him quoted in the English-language version of the film (narration spoken by Mathieu Amalric) than the French one. The book The Tennis Fan collected, after Daney’s death, his punchy articles on the sport, match-by-match reports that were commissioned by Libération newspaper between 1980 and 1990; three of his texts on McEnroe are cited in the film. Sometimes Daney was merely observing the matches on TV but, as a photograph used by Faraut shows, he attended live for the Roland-Garros tournaments.


Faraut asks: what would attract a film critic of Daney’s calibre to this type of game, what’s the connection between the two activities? For his part, Daney – a huge fan of Jacques Tati, who made a meal of tennis motions in his stage and screen career – never missed an opportunity to draw out, in his playfully musing way, the parallels between tennis and cinema. For instance, he compared the way Björn Borg played the entire frame of the court as an “ideal volume” with McEnroe’s “flatter style entirely based on the idea of angle”. It’s André Bazin versus Sergei Eisenstein all over again!


From all that, Faraut concentrates on a central idea: that a tennis player is someone who plays with time – extending and telescoping it. In the case of McEnroe, he both (in Daney’s terms) “creates time” by stretching out the volleys, and brutally cuts things short with his winning “oblique shots”.


So tennis, basically, equals montage. Faraut has cited Chris Marker as his main inspiration and guiding star in the slow editing, over three years, of In the Realm of Perfection – indeed, Faraut’s previous feature, Regard neuf sur Olympia 52 (2013), is an investigation into Marker’s debut documentary, a sports film that was among the first to be archived by INSEP. But we can also see the influence of Orson WellesF for Fake (1973) in the many clever, inventive manipulations of de Kermadec’s material – not only the editing connections created, but the occasional draining of colour into black and white, and the use of cartoon-like sound effects.


If the original French title, L’Empire de la perfection, is translated more literally, another nuance emerges. McEnroe does not only swim in a realm of perfection; he also has to defend its empire. In this light, he is like a gangster boss, trusting nobody around him, and permanently at war with himself. The drive to always do better – and the mad dream of having it all, attaining the absolute peak – inevitably drives McEnroe to despair.


Faraut’s ending is brave in that it refuses to smooth over and somehow put a positive, optimistic spin on the devastating moment of failure in the player’s career. Here, as throughout, his choices of musical accompaniment – songs by Sonic Youth and Black Flag, guitar distortion by Serge Teyssot-Guy – signal a hard, uncompromising path.


There is only one concession to mainstream documentaries and re-enacted biopics about sport here. Faraut realised, during editing, that his essay lacked a necessary element of drama. So, just like in Borg vs McEnroe, everything culminates in a single, decisive match (here, McEnroe vs Lendl), carefully reconstructed in its major stages and turning points.


However, staying true to his principle of using strictly de Kermadec’s footage, Faraut had only bits and pieces to work with. That he nonetheless manages to sweep us up in the tension of this game is a tribute to not only the brilliance of the players involved, but also the magic of montage.

© Adrian Martin April 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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