Almost Perfect

1 March 2019 Khalid Warsame

Almost Perfect

John McEnroe

In the closing scenes of Julien Faraut’s bizarro sports documentary, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, the camera lingers on the tennis icon burying his face in his hands. He has just been defeated in the final of the 1984 French Open by Ivan Lendl. McEnroe played 85 tennis matches that year and lost only three – a feat that is still unmatched in men’s tennis. “In 1984,” we are told, “John McEnroe came close to perfection.”

McEnroe is familiar to most these days as a commentator. He is popularly remembered as much for his bad-tempered displays as his explosive talent. In contrast to the polite grace of Roger Federer, McEnroe is synonymous with bad-boy tennis. He would yell. Fling racquets. He would abuse umpires and lines-people. In the Realm of Perfection looks back at McEnroe in his almost perfect year to nut out what drives a person to such extremes.

Speaking on Skype from France, Faraut is ambivalent about the idea of perfection. “I have to say perfectionism can be a disease or a pathology. Perfectionists, of course, live in an imperfect world – so they put themselves in a position of constant frustration,” he says.
It seems he found the perfect subject in McEnroe. “I really think [McEnroe] is tortured, that his tantrums are real, and in a way, he is really suffering.”

The film is narrated by French actor Mathieu Amalric, whom you might remember as the dastardly Bond villain from Quantum of Solace (2008). Here, he assumes the manner of a gentle instructor, guiding us through this rich portrait of one of the game’s most remarkable players at his peak.

It begins with Faraut’s discovery of a cache of 16mm reels in an archive belonging to INSEP, the French national sport and training institute in Paris. Instructional tennis films started to gain popularity in the 60s as a tool to understand what makes a player truly great. The idea was that, if aspiring players were able to study a player’s movements, they might be able to learn and repeat them. But it was the director of these INSEP films, Gil de Kermadec, who realised that, to precisely capture a player’s movements, it was crucial to record tennis players in their natural setting. Only a competitive real-life tennis match would do.

Beginning in the 70s, he produced a series of long-form portraits of tennis players at various French Opens, setting up camera crews to record their actions. It was this vibrant footage of McEnroe that Faraut discovered. “It was very unexpected; the rushes are supposed to be destroyed,” he says. “I was stunned by [their] richness and quality.”
The footage exists so that it can be analysed and mastered – but Faraut soon realised that part of the reason McEnroe’s playing style was so compelling was because it broke all the rules

“He is unpredictable,” Faraut says. “There is no routine, there is no receipt, and he is full of new solutions to new problems. On every point in the match, he puts himself in positions where he has to create and think of a new way to win this point – and he’ll probably never do it the same way again.”
Faraut spent years stitching this footage together, and it is unlike any other sport footage. For one: the camera focuses on the player, not the game, so often we only see half the court, making the player appear like a performer moving alone on a stage. And the way McEnroe moves is hypnotic. It is mesmerising watching slow-motion footage of his whip-like serve.

The journey Faraut leads us on isn’t just about the sport: there’s also appreciation for the spectacle of filmmaking. “Back in the 80s, TV broadcasts were made in [a different format],” he says. “So it was very unusual to watch a tennis match, a real event, shot with movie cameras and not video cameras. What I’m watching right now: is it a real thing? Is it a fiction?”

This strange collision of sport and cinema is played up even further when, in several scenes, McEnroe’s voice is dubbed with the voice of another sports monster, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980).

But what does the film really say about McEnroe? Faraut tackles his subject from all sides, with one section even going into his parents and upbringing. But, a cinephile at heart, Faraut settles on cinema as the lens through which to try to understand McEnroe.

“John McEnroe is very expressive in his manner and gestures, to the point where he really looks like he’s acting,” he says. “Tennis is inherently dramatic – the rules of the sport give the players the opportunity to create the time that they need to win…which is exactly the same as in cinema.”

» This article was first published in Ed#581.