The best moment in Julien Faraut’s documentary John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection comes early: slow-motion footage of a big-swinging John McEnroe at the French Open, set to “The Sprawl” by Sonic Youth. As you watch the tennis legend, engulfed in the burnt sienna of the Roland-Garros clay court, you hear Kim Gordon’s ululating vocals: “I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell.” And the sight of McEnroe writhing, caged by the white lines of the court, yields an answer: 78 feet long by 36 feet wide.
Indeed, In the Realm of Perfection is primarily focused on a particularly hellish moment in McEnroe’s career: the 1984 French Open final, which saw him lose to Ivan Lendl. This sweltering crucible is girded with Faraut’s filmic fascinations. He explores the work of Gil de Kermadec, a director who made a series of hilariously innocent instructional tennis films, and who captured the footage of the final we see here. Faraut also attempts to bring about an entente between filmmaking and tennis, which is signaled with an epigraph from Jean-Luc Godard: “Cinema lies, sport doesn’t.”
Janus Metz Pedersen’s Borg vs. McEnroe, from last year, was rapt with the rivalry of its title matchup, famously described as the meeting of “fire and ice.” In this film, though, it isn’t the frosty sledgehammer of Borg’s forehand that McEnroe has to fight with fire, but the cold touch of contrivance.
At first, you might just think that Faraut is onto something. Mathieu Amalric, who narrates the film, reads passages from Serge Daney’s writing on tennis and cinema, in which he establishes time as the nexus between the two disciplines. “It’s about telling stories about countdowns. There’s also the underlying question: How much time is left before the end credits?” he says. “The thing that makes a great film is the invention of time.” Faraut compares this to the variable length of a tennis match, arguing that the players must themselves “invent time”—the time they need to win.
Fair play. But then, drawing out the point, Faraut stumbles, as if wrong-footed by a ball exceeding his grasp. Scenes of McEnroe’s famous tantrums are likened to a director yelling “cut” and consulting with his crew. At one point, they’re dubbed over with a conversation taken from Raging Bull, in which a combative Robert De Niro psychopathically interrogates his brother. These labored juxtapositions create fission, the feel of a director scrambling to dictate the game. Later in In the Realm of Perfection, Faraut has the gall to claim, “I’m struggling to destroy pretenses.” You cannot be serious.
Faraut’s documentary is worth watching purely for the simultaneously immediate and dreamily distant footage of de Karmadec’s footage; there’s nothing like sunlight in 16mm, citrus-bright and cotton-soft. What emerges, as In the Realm of Perfection strains to invent time of its own, is a duel between director and subject. The powerful contradiction in McEnroe’s game was that it wasn’t torched by his temper, but rather fueled by it. We associate blazing emotion with a lack of control, but he leveraged aggression with the malleability of his skillset to dominate opponents. Faraut, with the illusive tools of directorial control—cutting away to naïve instructional videos, cartoon interludes, and archival footage—winds up demonstrating a lack of it, spoiling the natural narrative of the match in pursuit of his own conceit.