John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection ****
Dir: Julien Faraut. Documentary with: John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and the voice of Mathieu Amalric. 95 mins. Cert: 12A
Cinematic Tantrum Week continues with a cherishably idiosyncratic essay-film that could be retitled Racquetman, clinching its thesis on the implicit link between big-stadium sportsmen and other impetuous performers. Archivist Julien Faraut has spun documentarist Gil de Kermadec’s raw footage of John McEnroe’s fractious mid-Eighties progress at the French Open into the basis of a philosophical rumination – Herzogian voiceover care of Mathieu Amalric – on tennis, cinema and life. Steady old Ivan Lendl gets barely a look in on the other side of the net; the attraction here lies in watching one man wage noisy war against a world built on treacherous clay. At a stretch, the film might be claimed as a serious-minded Gallic variant on what our own Mac-mimicking Roger Kitter attempted with his 1982 novelty hit “Chalk Dust (The Umpire Strikes Back)”.
McEnroe remains a fascinating focal point: Faraut, thinking under the influence of former Cahiers du Cinéma chief Serge Daney, seeks to elevate him as a singularly tortured creative, an auteur in sports socks. His face set in that teenage De Niro scowl, he offers no celebration, not even a terse, Murray-like fist pump; coaches will recoil at his tendency to stop after each shot, as if anticipating the worst. (Dodgy line calls merely confirm his put-upon worldview.) An opening instructional short illustrating how to hit a forehand comes to seem simplistic indeed set against McEnroe’s imperfect reality, battling balls, officials, crowds, perms and cameramen alike. There are electrifying moments where he stares down the lens mid-match with that signature mix of aggression and derision. You want some? You’re not worth my time.
And yet: surely he needed the cameras there, to document his status as the most tempestuous of showmen? (That McEnroe was the Chaplin of on-court contempt is made clear by the clip that shows him questioning one linesman’s vision, deploying his racquet as a white stick.) De Kermadec spurned televised tennis, drawn to players as vulnerable flesh-and-blood, and that preference may explain the unusually intimate, gorgeously earthy celluloid Faraut stitches together, forsaking full-court coverage in favour of a point-by-point portraiture; the pay-off is an unexpectedly haunting description of 1984’s rollercoaster men’s-singles final. Over the coming weeks, McEnroe will resume his position as the amused, brilliant analyst lobbing wisecracks at Andrew Castle. Is it that, with cameras and spectators on side, he feels he can finally relinquish this riveting inner tension?
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection opens in selected cinemas from today.