Review: An Athlete at the Top of His Game in John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection

There’s a moment in the footage presented in the documentary John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection in which McEnroe dives for a ball he knows he has no chance of hitting. The moment is particularly spectacular because he wearing an all-white tennis outfit and the courts of the 1984 French Open, in which he’s battling against Ivan Lendl, are made of red clay. He slides across a small section of clay and lays face down in it, holding the moment for beat too long for dramatic effect. If you hadn’t figured it out already in that instance, McEnroe played each match knowing full well that all eyes were on him. He was putting on a performance that included drama and humor, heroes and villains (usually him), and a skill level unmatched at the time. It was theater of the ego, and McEnroe was its Lawrence Olivier.

mcenroe realm of perfection

Image courtesy of Oscilloscope

Directed by Julien Faraut (curator of the French Sports Institute’s film collection), In The Realm Of Perfection is not a telling of the career of John McEnroe—far from it. The film results from Faraut’s own discovery of a cache of 16mm film cans shot by Gil de Kermadec (the former technical director of the French Tennis Federation) and his sizable team, all of whom were less interested in the players’ lives or even their matches, and more intent on capturing their technique. They did it all in the interest of creating instructional movies, which they deemed as important a part of film history as the works of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock.

At some point, De Kermadec became obsessed with McEnroe, a world champion for many years running in the early 1980s, and had hours of footage of the player. Much of it features him isolated on the court, playing against an unseen opponent, forcing us to consider that McEnroe’s greatest threat was himself. Naturally, there are a few classic McEnroe rants, but the filmmaker makes the point that even those are well timed demonstrations of controlling the game, occurring at moments when McEnroe was frustrated with himself. Interestingly enough, at one point early in the epic 1984 French Open against Lendl, it is Lendl that rants against the judges for making all of the calls in McEnroe’s favor. “Are you scared of him?” he says to the line judge, more a statement than a question.

Admittedly, the are few sports docs quite like In The Realm Of Perfection, and by the time it’s over, you feel like you’ve spent 90 minutes inside the head of a complicated, talented master of his craft. Narrated (in English) by actor Mathieu Amalric, the film is introspective and celebratory, while also forcing us to consider not just tennis but the similarities between cinema and certain sports. A prior knowledge of tennis is not required to appreciate the craftsmanship of the film. In fact, it might be best that you know as little as possible about these players or events. This was an unexpected, genuine treat and a thrilling examination of what makes someone the best in the world at what they do.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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