John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (2018)

John McEnroe’s fiery artistry on court is put under the microscope in Julien Faraut’s unique documentary John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which examines tennis as theatrical performance.

Sporting Genius

by Chris Drew

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t” said visionary New Wave director Jean-Luc Goddard and this quote opens Julien Faraut’s fascinating sports film which illustrates the notion.   

Beginning as a brief history of how the mechanics of tennis were filmed from the 1960s, we learn of Gil de Kermadec’s ‘portrait’ approach to capturing tennis on film, looking at the individual style of a player and the tennis they can produce. 

De Kermadec’s final portrait in 1985 was of John McEnroe and the great American quickly becomes the film’s focus. McEnroe is synonymous with the hallowed turf of Wimbledon, his legendary 1980 final against Bjorn Borg and his iconic scream of “You cannot be serious”.

However, Faraut’s film, via De Kermadec’s footage, and voiceover from Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly), shows McEnroe in full flight on the dusty red clay courts of Roland-Garros in Paris. 

The Parisian clay gives McEnroe a fitting stage for his trademark battles with officials. (On clay, ball marks can be checked and the American rarely agreed with the verdict.) Many furious arguments are given worthy screen time and make for compelling viewing.

This also serves to showcase McEnroe as a ‘performer’ and Faurant highlights this by comparing him to Tom Hulce’s interpretation of Mozart as a bratty genius in Amadeus (1984). Mozart’s natural gift for music is compared to McEnroe’s own extraordinary talent and flair on the tennis court.

McEnroe aficionados will revel in the selection and poetic quality of the archive footage. De Kermadec’s camera was positioned unusually close to the chair umpire and most of the play is in mid-shot with the camera trained on McEnroe to highlight, often in slow motion, the grace and artistry of his tennis.

For a film analysing a great sportsman, atypically the film ends not with a great triumph but with McEnroe’s most agonising defeat, his five-set loss to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open final. The lefthander was at the peak of his powers that year and it was the only time he came close to lifting the trophy in Paris.

This epic battle becomes the focus for the latter part of the film and Fauraut builds the tension with on-screen time checks breaking up the archive highlights footage as, first, McEnroe roars ahead before Lendl launches a fierce fightback.

By hearing McEnroe himself say how the pain of the defeat still resonated so many years later, Faraut successfully gives a glimpse of the man as well as the artist and performer.

Faraut’s film is a must for McEnroe fans, and tennis historians and enthusiasts alike.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection is released on 24 May 2019.

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