Restrained, respectful, sedate. Those are hardly words you’d use to describe the notoriously rambunctious tennis legend John McEnroe. But such is the surprising approach taken toward this outsized personality in the Julien Faraut documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection“.
The clay courts of Paris set the stage for the documentary, as John McEnroe competes at the prestigious French Open in 1984. With his sights set on completing a near perfect season of tennis, he is determined to walk away with the winner’s trophy. As McEnroe takes to the court with his trademark passion and skill, one avid fan named Gil de Kermadec looks on intently with a camera in hand. With his background as a technical director for French tennis, de Kermadec sought to capture and analyze McEnroe’s playing technique for instructional purpose. And now, that archival footage forms the basis for this unusually observational documentary.
Unlike other, more excitable athlete profiles, “John McEnroe In the Realm of Perfection” has more in common with a nature documentary. Following a brief preamble about the history of instructional tennis videos, we are introduced to McEnroe in the midst of a match. With little background or context to the images we are watching, the camera is trained on McEnroe from afar, simply observing him like a rare species in the wild.
As McEnroe’s movement and technique is meticulously analyzed in slow motion and close up shots, you initially get the sense that the film’s target audience is diehard tennis fans or players. But it soon becomes clear that the film has little interest in the sport itself, largely ignoring his opponents and the significance of McEnroe’s achievements. Furthermore, it fails to fully showcase the sport’s dramatic unpredictability, settling instead for anecdotal mentions of contrasting match durations.
Unfortunately, such a hands-off “vérité” approach limits audience engagement in the film and its subject. While the raw 16-mm photography gives the film an attractive visual appeal, it eventually feels repetitive (and Mathieu Almaric’s monotone narration hardly helps). In fact, the film’s most fascinating moments are a pair of scenes set away from competitive play altogether. The first alludes to McEnroe’s dislike of the spotlight, contrary to his obvious showmanship on the court. Meanwhile the other scene makes mention of the cultural influence of his persona, as we learn that he was the inspiration for Tom Hulce’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Amadeus.”
Such illuminating human elements are few and far between in “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection,” however. Even McEnroe’s trademark outbursts are sometimes literally muted in order to maintain the film’s classy, reverent attitude. At once impressively intimate and disappointingly impersonal, the film approaches McEnroe like a special animal to be studied. But ultimately, the effect is more akin to counting sheep.