John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection: Loud Quiet Loud, by Alexander Miller
Julien Faraut’s new feature isn’t so much a documentary about the self-styled tennis maverick but more of a freewheeling essay film. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is indeed focused on its titular subject but Faraut’s feature has a multifaceted objective in lensing the nature of the sport and the persona of the athletes (both mental and physical) by making an aesthetic parallel to the history of cinema as well as pointing an eye to the overall significance of the artistic pursuit. Yes, this is a documentary about John McEnroe but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the star of the movie. In the Realm of Perfection is largely composed of footage culled from McEnroe’s turn at the 1984 French open shot by Gil de Kermadec, the first national technical director of tennis. We learn that de Kermadec went from making, what he felt were irrelevant instructional videos about the sport to recording the actual tournaments at the French Open, shifting the focus to the “reality” of playing. For years, his footage would chronicle competitions at the Roland Garros, examining the techniques of individual players and what makes them unique, noting a type of authorship with the players. The culmination of his series, however, reached its apex with his coverage of John McEnroe, who, in 1984, had a nearly perfect winning record with the exception of his defeat at the final of the French Open. It’s this culmination of imperfection that serves as the crux of Faraut’s feature. However his examination of the mercurial tennis player is purely enabled by de Kermadec’s footage. Though the intention of his filming was to study and analyze his techniques, de Kermadec’s artful verite has the curious sense of discovery that you’d find in the work of Jean Painleve or Jean Rouch with the incisive penchant for physical detail that would define Eadweard Muybridge’s motion photography. It almost feels like de Kermadec should receive a co-directing credit.
Technically, the structure of In the Realm of Perfection is cleverly built around its theme of contrast. It explores the seemingly simplistic win-or-lose nature of the sport while carrying an abiding fascination with the psychology of its subject. On the one hand, McEnroe is an athlete driven to win, while his rebellious attitude and feuds with authorities, umpires and opponents was common knowledge we also see a breakdown of his playing style which is unorthodox and volatile. The sense of a headstrong rebel is vital to portraying McEnroe as a unique force in the sport and Faraut’s juxtaposition of, as the title suggests, the “perfection” is a conversation the film is willing to have with itself.
McEnroe is shown as someone who demands perfection not only from himself but from those around him and, of course, those demands aren’t satisfied. His outbursts aren’t merited, nor are they always productive. Like his technique, McEnroe’s behavior is anarchic and the film shares its abiding fascination with his volcanic temper with footage of an infuriated McEnroe arguing with umpires and the press (one memorable sequence sees an incensed McEnroe threatening to hit a sound technician with his racket). In realizing the subject as a competing but flawed figure isn’t the most original avenue to pursue but the range of expression employed by the filmmakers is. In the Realm of Perfection McEnroe isn’t treated like an athlete but an artist, instead of a bombardment statistics, talking heads and sports experts the film settles on the more enigmatic side of the tennis player and the pursuit of the sport as more of a psychological venture than a physical one. And in doing that we see McEnroe the way we’d see a director, actor, or musician, In the Realm of Perfection opens with a quote from Godard, incorporates audio clips from Raging Bull, makes allusions to The Godfather trilogy; while you might wonder “what the hell does that have to do with tennis?” On the surface, it doesn’t have any connection with tennis, but this isn’t a movie about tennis, this is a movie about passion, and art, and cinema has everything to do with passion and skill.
Faraut’s feature is a dynamic examination that falls in with this newer school of documentary filmmaking that eschews form while creating a more profound narrative through aesthetic reinvention. Faraut seems to be working on a similar frequency to Rodney Ascher, Brett Morgen, Thom Anderson, and relative newcomer Donal Foreman.
His instincts are on point and once I heard Sonic Youth playing over the credits, I was convinced I was in good hands. Mathieu Amalric provides the film’s narration and his voice is a soothing bonus. His presence isn’t seen but felt and is wonderfully congruous to the overall tone.