This is not a film about John McEnroe. And yet it is a film of John McEnroe. This is the sort of distinction that I tend to reserve for more experiential documentaries. The sort that follows a subject in their life or in its existing state rather than telling us about them. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection does showcase the eponymous tennis player in his prime, but this is by no means a biographical profile. There are no interviews with friends and family and former rivals. There is no life story. No attempt to celebrate the man. And yet it creates a phenomenal portrait of McEnroe in the process of its other intentions.
As the film itself states, with narration from actor Mathieu Amalric, the viewer is not in the process of watching John McEnroe. Nor are we watching a film about John McEnroe. We “are the cameraman on the set of a film in the process of being made.” Indeed, this is a film about the making of a film — or, really, two films. One is a 1985 work by France’s national director of tennis, Gil de Kermadec, focused on the techniques of McEnroe for the Institut National du Sport et de l’Education Physique (aka the French Sports Institute or INSEP). The other is this very feature. Director Julien Faraut, formerly of INSEP, went back into the 16mm footage shot for the earlier work and has made a meta-textual experimental sports doc partly inspired by Jean-Luc Godard.
“Cinema can lie, not sport,” goes the claim attributed to Godard in the marketing for In the Realm of Perfection. More fully, the quote goes: “I still watch sport because it has remained something in which the human body doesn’t lie. Politics, cinema, and literature can lie, not sport.” The irony is that this is a cinematic adaptation of the sport. So a lie about the non-liar. Even if we were watching these rushes straight on their own, in full, that would be a nontruth. Faraut makes it even more so by playing with the footage — cutting it, slowing it down, adding narration, changing the audio in one sequence to equate one of McEnroe’s arguments with Robert De Niro in Raging Bull asking Joe Pesci, “Did you fuck my wife?”
The documentary makes other connections between tennis players and the movies, including a bit on how Tom Hulce studied McEnroe’s notorious tantrums to prepare for his role as Mozart in Amadeus. There’s address of early chronophotography. Of Cahiers du Cinema film critic Serge Daney and his love of the game. Some of the slow-motion stuff, much of it seen in de Kermadec’s earlier studies of tennis players from the 1960s through the 1980s for training films, reminds of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Faraut brings up the paradox of documentary cinema and the observer effect. And McEnroe is treated as a performer, an actor theatrically playing his part for the audience at Stade Roland Garros — except as previously noted, sport is so different from cinema in the way that the viewers are, as this film states, not so much spectators as discoverers of an unknown outcome.
I admit I don’t entirely get all of In the Realm of Perfection. Nor do I love all the parts that I do understand. It definitely seems, at times, a little too experimental just for the sake of being experimental for the love of Godard. But it’s also exhilarating in its alternative approach to sports profile and biographical documentary, even if it’s not meant to be. Whatever you think of McEnroe or tennis in general, and even if you still prefer to be the type of cineaste who doesn’t care about sports, by the end of this film, when it really focuses on McEnroe’s fateful match against Ivan Lendi at the 1984 French Open, you can’t help but be completely absorbed, even if just for the nature of it.
And the nature film element to it all. No other tennis pro could be at the center of a doc like In the Realm of Perfection. Not just because McEnroe is the one whom de Kermadec ended up concentrating on. But also because he was a wild animal. There is, of course, the acknowledgment in the film that the footage looks at McEnroe as another documentary might study penguins in Antarctica. It is, in part, March of the McEnroe. And it’s also a study of the study, a breakdown of documentary form and truthiness, akin to the underrated Jose Padilha film Secrets of the Tribe, which takes down ethnography films, specifically those about indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
Faraut isn’t critical of his source material, though, even if he’s deconstructing and having fun with it. He does seem curious, as does the audience, regarding why in his study of McEnroe’s form and technique as an athlete de Kermadec bothered to shoot so much film footage of the tennis player in his tantrums and arguments and downtimes on the sidelines. Besides the instances when McEnroe’s ire is directly aimed at de Kermadec’s soundman, that is. There’s plenty to wonder about with In the Realm of Perfection, which keeps things more interesting than any doc sharing trivial facts about the tennis pro’s life and career could ever be. Maybe the film is a lie, but it’s a damn good lie.