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In this cherishably idiosyncratic essay-film, archivist Julien Faraut has spun documentarist Gil de Kermadec’s raw footage of John McEnroe’s fractious mid-80s progress at the French Open into the basis of a philosophical rumination – Herzogian voiceover by 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.
McEnroe makes a fascinating focal point. Faraut 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. 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. 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 inclination may explain the unusually intimate, gorgeously earthy celluloid Faraut stitches together, forsaking full-court coverage in favour of a point-by-point portraiture. The result is an unexpectedly haunting description of 1984’s rollercoaster French men’s-singles final.
This summer, 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?
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection review – Superbrat court in the act | Sport films