Court and Spark:
A. G. Sims on tennis, time, cinema, and John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
It’s 1984 at the French Open, and John McEnroe is serving the ball in slow motion underneath the gut punching noise of Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.” The shot of his serve—his toss, the pendulum swing of his arm, the follow-through—is slowed down to a crawl, pulling focus to the grace and precision of the movement. Kim Gordon’s volcanic tirade oozes over the clip. The irony? Besides the fact that tennis is the least punk thing I can think of, the lyrics are McEnroe through and through: “Does fuck you sound simple enough?”
It’s an epic introduction to McEnroe, the centerpiece of Julien Faraut’s 2018 documentary John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection. Working with editor Andrei Bogdanov, Faraut mines hours of 16mm footage of McEnroe at Roland Garros, originally shot by the documentarian Gil de Kermadec, for an instructional series he filmed in the seventies and eighties. In 2011, Faraut found De Kermadec’s cuts and realized that there was still plenty more to use and analyze for the tennis obsessed, and he began to make In the Realm of Perfection, a culmination of his ideas on cinema, tennis, and the preternaturally gifted New Yorker, John McEnroe.
This is technically a sports documentary, but Faraut treats his subject with an original and abstract style that feels more art-house than what you’d typically expect. He rewinds and replays scenes like Michael Haneke might and uses other film techniques that alter our perception of the images we’re seeing. Bogdanov edits the film with a choppy rhythm that mirrors the unpredictable flow of a tennis match. A TV signal beeps before the narrator can finish reading a quote at one point, and a title card informs us of a “break in the film,” followed by two minutes of an official walking back and forth across the court during a paused match. Long takes of moments like these, where virtually nothing is happening, are punctuated with unexpectedly upbeat queues in the score, mixing in the theatrical with the occasionally haunting and profound.
Faraut’s musical choices have a hypnotic effect. Paragraphs of sleepy monotone narration (voiced by Mathieu Amahis) layered with ’80s video game inspired synths charge the film with ghostly undercurrents. Like a haunted house in a horror movie, we learn that Roland Garros was built over the old grounds of the Station Physiologique du Parc des Princes, the studio where Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny, the 19th century’s premier researchers of motion studies, carried out their revolutionary camera work. Faraut believes that the specter of these studies is manifested in the portraits of Gil de Kermadec, which could be interpreted as the natural evolution of Marey and Demeny’s efforts to freeze the human body in motion and capture on film what you can’t see with the naked eye.
When De Kermadec shot the footage originally, he was seated right in the mix with the other 20 or so broadcast camera crews in the front rows of the stadium. And so, in addition to his principal focus, which was obviously McEnroe, his camera brings us closer to the whole spectacle of the game. We see McEnroe and his opponents boxed into their clay arena by a wall separating them from the spectators that’s littered with ads for Lacrosse and Volvo and Canon and Chaussettes Kinoy and Lotto and Berteil. McEnroe’s parents appear in the audience, too. Kay McEnroe, a surgical nurse, and John Patrick McEnroe senior, a corporate lawyer—decked in expensive suits with silk scarves and pocket squares.
In the Realm of Perfection is at times weighed down by theory, but Faraut occasionally obliterates this boring, sterile world of rich people sports with violence, rage, and melodrama. Two musical acts especially stand out on the soundtrack: the Sonic Youth needle drop that introduces McEnroe, and the song that closes the film, “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag—two jabs of neurotic, punk-rock adrenaline that hint at the filmmaker’s interest in something more emotionally rich and chaotic than the game’s manicured surface and upper-class spectatorship would indicate. During a tense moment on the court where McEnroe is characteristically berating an umpire, Faraut swaps out the original audio for Jake La Motta’s “Did you f**k my wife?” scene from Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
He’s having fun with it, and it makes the movie fun to watch, but Faraut’s stylistic gestures and collection of cheeky pop culture references are also part of his ultimate revelation, which is that tennis shares a language with cinema and that De Kermadec’s instructional tennis films and profiles are part of cinema history. There’s one unifying concept that really ties it all together, Faraut believes, and that’s the idea of time and the ability of a good director and a good tennis player to sculpt within it. Faraut’s ideas are deeply rooted in the theories of French movie critic and tennis super fan Serge Daney, who is cited frequently in In the Realm of Perfection. Daney once wrote, “The length of the match is determined by the skill of the players to create the length of time that they need to win.”
If you’re inclined to think about tennis this way, then McEnroe might have been the best director there ever was. The drama of a McEnroe match is near mythic. There were people who called him childish for the theatrics he displayed on the court when things didn’t go his way, but there was also this prevailing idea, as with most gifted people, that his personality quirks were all just part of the genius. Faraut is on the side of genius. Midway through, the movie’s extended technical analyses of De Kermadec as a filmmaker and McEnroe as a player (we get lots of slow motion and many angles on McEnroe’s drop shots, which were one of his major weapons, coming to the net and shortening the rally), give way to an emotional profile of McEnroe, who is obviously famous for his volatile personality. From the second act onward, In the Realm of Perfection is focused on his psychology and attempts to account for his otherworldly genius. This is the only place where the movie falls short of the genre it’s trying to subvert. Without the talking head format of a traditional sports doc (which even with its flaws, can still produce ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, for example), or the access that is the primary feature of another staple of the genre, the intimate follow-doc (see Steve James’s Hoop Dreams), the movie doesn’t really have the quality of sourcing it would take to say anything definitive about why McEnroe is the way he is. Faraut’s Freudian allusions to McEnroe’s parents and other psychic guesswork feel like a reach for behavioral explanations that are ultimately unknowable. In the words of Jean Luc-Godard, which appear in the epigraph at the beginning of the movie: “Cinema lies. Sport doesn’t.”
The last third of the movie is dedicated to a game that is now infamous: McEnroe’s match against Ivan Lendl at the French in ’84. The stakes aren’t fully explained in the movie, but just for context, McEnroe arrived in Paris that spring on a 39-match win streak. He was in his prime — 25 years old, seven years pro, with half a dozen Grand Slam trophies to his name. McEnroe won the first two sets of the Final, but eventually he went down against the Czech, self-destructing in the most gruesome way possible. It was one of only three losses in a record-setting year that saw him finish as World No. 1, but to this day he still considers it one of the most haunting losses of his career. Lendl, who previously hadn’t won any Slams, went on to dominate the second half of the ’80s.
Following In the Realm of Perfection, Faraut has continued to deepen his exploration of the sports doc with 2021’s The Witches of the Orient, the (mildly racist) name given to the unprecedentedly successful Japanese women’s volleyball team of the 1964 Tokyo Games. But his dreamlike visual profile of John McEnroe remains for me a key text for how I watch the game of tennis and a highlight of Faraut’s oeuvre.
I remember catching a handful of matches from last year’s U.S. Open on TV, and none stung me more than Andy Murray getting knocked out by Stephanos Tsitsipas in the first round. It just happened to be a super unlucky draw for Murray. The No. 3 ranked Tsitsipas led the ATP in wins going into the Slam, and the Vegas odds had him as a heavy favorite to win (although I couldn’t tell you the name of a single person who was rooting for him). But probability aside, Murray took Tsitsipas to five sets on a sunny Monday morning in Queens, and as he continued to defy the odds, there were flashes of optimism where I thought he might run away with it. The scenes that Murray produced were magnetic. He was yelling toward the stands and sprinting and throwing himself to the ground for balls. He was completely locked in, and once he found his groove, he began celebrating after every point and emoting for the crowd. Despite my best hopes for him making it out alive, Tsitsipas ended up forging ahead, past this match and ultimately into the third round, where he was upset in another five-setter by one of last year’s many teen wonders, Carlos Alcaraz.
There were several tensions of the Murray-Tsitsipas matchup, but the most persistent of them turned out to be about bathroom breaks (ultimately becoming the Open’s biggest controversy). The problem was that Tsitsipas left to pee twice, and right before Murray’s serve, and also for more than seven minutes at a time. Tsitsipas was creating the length of time that he needed to win the match. Call me crazy, but while watching this whole scene, I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing Serge Daney’s theories in action.