John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection


In 2006 the celebrated video artist Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno made a film about the French footballer Zinedine Zidane in which a camera tracked the midfield magician in medium close-up throughout a single match. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was about the physical and mental exertions of life as a sportsperson, but it also worked as a quasi scientific, quasi erotic study of the magnificence of the human form.

Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection embraces a similar tack, though it’s more of a tongue-in-cheek essay film than it is a pure, unadorned documentary. That is to say, Zidane lays itself open to a wide range of readings, whereas In the Realm of Perfection is a film which playfully bombards the viewer with its eccentric postulations.

The catalyst for Faraut’s spry study is one Gil de Kermadec, a one-time employee of France’s Institut National du Sport et de l’Education Physique whose job it was to produce dry instructional videos about how to play tennis. Each year he would plant himself in the stalls at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris, along with his trusty sound guy, and they would film the players (not the game) with a view to distilling posture, racket technique and body movement for critical posterity.

With the help of his pal Matthew Amalric, roped in for narration duties (he intones his words with half-crazed zeal, in a good way), the director then zeroes in on McEnroe as the yankee rebel who combined the strategic rigour of a Prussian general with a ratty toddler’s contempt for any umpire decision that didn’t fall his way.

Slow-motion footage of McEnroe’s ruthless serve-volley tactic is a wonder to behold, particularly the chance to see every muscle in his body operating in perfect concert. Less wonderful are Faraut’s attempts to draw out intellectual heft from the material by connecting it with the writings of vaunted French critic/thinker Serge Daney.

For a large portion of the film, the subject becomes an irrelevance, an ambient background figure who breaks up the chatter with the occasional expletive-peppered flame out. The musings are often interesting on their own terms, but sometimes it feels like you’ve come to see a tennis match, and there’s a crusty on court reciting critical theory from the tramlines.

Focus is retained in the film’s final segment when we monitor McEnroe’s colossal horn-locking with Czech iceman, Ivan Lendl, in 1984. It’s strange to require some semblance of narrative in an experimental film, but until this point the film wriggles and dithers to the point of mild irritation, stacking up observations in a fashion that appears to reject rhyme or reason.

At least the drama of the match lends the film a natural forward momentum, and also allows Amalric to apply theory to practice. It’s a tricksy and bold film, one which thankfully shifts away from the usual subject-endorsed, Wiki-powered hagiographies that seem to tumble down the chute on a near-weekly basis. The objectivity here feels exotic and often pleasurable, yet by the end, it’s hard to know exactly who or what Faraut’s prime interest is.

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