If you follow tennis, or even if you don’t, you may think you know quite enough about John McEnroe, a.k.a. Superbrat, the one-time No. 1 world player whose brash, explosive on-court emotionality was so intense that a recent dramatic feature, “Borg vs. McEnroe,” was made about his life.
The French documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” thinks differently. Which is no surprise from a tennis film unusual enough to use a Jean-Luc Godard proclamation that “cinema lies, sports doesn’t” as an opening epigram.
An idiosyncratic, metaphysical meditation on tennis, cinema, human behavior, maybe even life itself, “Perfection” at times risks being too pleased with itself for its own good, but its one-of-a-kind credentials are never in doubt.
In this it is very much in the tradition of another French sports documentary, 2006’s “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” which used 17 cameras to focus exclusively on French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane during an ordinary league game, showing us every single movement the man made and nothing else. Joining sports films to conceptual art projects is clearly something of a French passion.
This particular film gets its title from McEnroe’s 1984 season, when his won-lost match record was 85-3, a winning percentage of 96.5 that is more than impressive.
Its genesis, however, goes back even further, to a French filmmaker named Gil de Kermadec. Working for the French Sports Institute (INSEP), De Kermadec became obsessed with using film, especially slow motion, to analyze the way top players played and won.
De Kermadec did not, a colleague remembers, even like to watch actual tennis matches: his 16-mm recordings at the annual French Open tournament at Paris’ Roland Garros Stadium and the in-depth analysis that resulted, all with an eye toward improving how tennis was taught, were all he cared about.
Julien Faraut, “Perfection’s” director, also works for INSEP, and when he discovered the archival outtakes from De Kermadec’s work on numerous players, he was mesmerized.
“We are not watching McEnroe or a film about him,” Faraut writes in the voice-over, read by top French actor Mathieu Amalric, about the McEnroe portion of the footage. “We are actually the cameraman on the set.”
Though focusing on that magical year of 1984, Faraut uses clips from the five years De Karmadec shot McEnroe in Paris to construct his analysis and make his points.
De Karmadec was so laser-focused on his protagonist he didn’t shoot any footage of the opponents, which allows “Perfection” to richly illustrate something McEnroe’s tantrums often overshadowed: how gifted a player he was and how much command he had over his shots.
“Perfection” is also impressed by how unpredictable McEnroe was, how, especially with his superb drop shot, he was able to camouflage what he was going to do until the final second.
But along with McEnroe the tennis artist there is also a great deal of footage of him mercilessly complaining, badmouthing the officials and patrolling Roland Garros’ red clay for ball marks only he can see.
He even got angry at De Karmadec’s camera and sound people, at one point screaming at a blimp microphone, “Keep that thing away from me!” If you’ve forgotten how unpleasant the man could be on court, this film will set you straight.
Filmmaker Faraut shows us this tantrum footage to make several points. McEnroe, he believes, was “a man who played at the edge of his senses,” and as such hated being judged by people who weren’t as fanatically invested, who didn’t care as much as he did.
That, and something else as well. Because McEnroe had the rare ability to turn fury on and off and not let it get in the way of his focus (“something I practiced over the years,” he says in a moment of candor the film repeats multiple times), he used it as a tool to take control of the drama and thus control the match.
One match, however, that McEnroe had trouble controlling was the 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl, the only time “Perfection” shows us both players and gives us a blow by blow of the proceedings.
“Perfection” has any number of unexpected elements, like hearing top French film critic Serge Daney’s thoughts on tennis to being told that actor Tom Hulce prepared for playing Mozart in “Amadeus” by watching McEnroe on the court.
That may seem like an odd choice, but when we see a clip from the film that has Mozart saying, “I am a vulgar man but I assure you my music is not,” the connection is made.
“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection”
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In limited release.