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A strange, intriguing look at a tennis bad boy

Archival footage showcases top-ranked tennis player John McEnroe competing in the 1984 French Open at Roland Garros Stadium in France.
September 5, 2018 07:43 pm

Julian Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is a peculiar yet fascinating documentary about the American tennis bad boy of the 1980s, but it’s also about personal obsessions, both on the court and behind the cameras.

Faraut discovered archival 16mm footage shot by Gil de Kermadec breaking down the movement of tennis players, techniques that he analyzed in minute detail to illustrate the dramatic differences between tennis and other major sports.

Much of the footage assembled by Faraut was shot at Roland Garros, the legendary French Open stadium. The final quarter of the film focuses on the grueling 1985 French Open final between the peripatetic McEnroe and the stoic Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia.

De Kermadec turned out to be a mediocre talent with a tennis racquet, but he was a virtuoso with a movie camera. He was infatuated with slow-motion and the way it could show details of human movement. He was also obsessed with John McEnroe.

To de Kermadec, McEnroe was a case study of the unconventional and unpredictable. His serve, for which he stood parallel with the net instead of facing it, and the 180-degree spiraling torque of his left arm, are depicted in dozens of exciting shots and angles.

Then, of course, there are the celebrated meltdowns. An angry McEnroe was happy to argue with the poor chair umpire for several minutes, relenting only when ordered to play and resembling the kid who wanted his Maypo, a boy about to cry.

Faraut tinkers with these scenes, sometimes to the detriment of the film. He dubs a Robert De Niro tirade from “Raging Bull” over one of McEnroe’s tirades. In another scene, Faraut cuts from a McEnroe tantrum to clips from the movie “Amadeus” (with soundtrack) and Tom Hulce’s performance. It’s unclear what Faraut is up to or whether we’re meant to take these scenes seriously.

The movie makes de Kermadec’s preoccupations clear, but it also betrays Faraut’s obsession with de Kerdamec’s work. Faraut, who narrates, falls in love with de Kerdamec’s arsenal of cameras, boom microphones, mathematical analyses and curious vantage points (shooting from a pit on the other side of a Roland Garros wall, for example) that he ends up making a documentary within a documentary, ultimately losing sight of the purpose of both.

Despite its weaknesses — and a passing resemblance to the old ESPN series “Sports Science” — the movie is a sturdy piece of archival sports whose aims are as vague as they are tantalizing.

Any sports movie that scores the McEnroe-Lendl match to Jimi Hendrix’s crushing riffs and opens with a quote from French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, no less, “Cinema lies, sports doesn’t,” can’t be ignored.