REVIEW: L’empire de la perfection [John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection] [2018]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: July 11th, 2018 (France)
Studio: UFO Distribution / Oscilloscope
Director(s): Julien Faraut

“Indeed, it seems he’s playing himself”

Titled L’empire de la perfection [In the Realm of Perfection] for French audiences, it’s interesting to see the addition of the name John McEnroe for American release. That’s not to say it doesn’t belong since Julien Faraut‘s documentary is very much about the famed tennis player, but that its use as a clarifier may misrepresent how the film approaches said subject. What we’re actually watching beyond McEnroe and the sport itself as captured in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec (France’s first national technical director of tennis who documented matches at Roland Garros alongside still photographers long before television networks came in with live feeds) is a distillation of the cinematic process and its complex relationship with the truth through performance, aesthetic, and archival b-roll rushes.

Here are obvious outtakes (complete with a man on the ground that three cameramen constantly pan towards in order to sync up via his makeshift clapper of a notebook hitting the boom) shot in grainy 16mm much like you’d see captured on a fiction film set. It’s a look that calls into question what it is we’re watching since the match itself becomes inconsequential when placed against the act of filming and the act of tennis. These cameras are focused solely on McEnroe as a means of putting his idiosyncratic technique on celluloid so it can be dissected, slowed down, and rotoscoped for full effect. The player himself initially becomes less a character than a prop. He’s the object that the filmmakers place in the middle of the frame.

Who then are the performers: McEnroe or the filmmakers themselves? And where does the crowd and referees fit into the equation? At first the answer is very much de Kermadec and his team since removing the footage from its final form makes it about them scrambling to get the best angles and sound without tampering with the scene itself. Soon afterwards, however, Faraut acknowledges the truth that the simple act of being there with equipment that can’t help but standout as different than the still cameras beside them and film speeds that can’t help but be heard on-court during a tense match desperate for silence means tampering is unavoidable. And when McEnroe is caught breaking his concentration to look directly at the lens, the jig is officially up.

Does McEnroe then transform from athlete to actor? If it were anyone else—de Kermadec pivoted his instructional videos of universally sound technical precision to a series on specific players and what made them each individually great, so Faraut could have chosen anyone—the answer would be no since athletes are known for cancelling out distractions and focusing on themselves. To them those cameras would just be cameras. The noise would just be another sound to filter out when in the heat of the point. For McEnroe, though, the tiniest change in environment from the notion of what that environment should be in his head will set him off. He will use de Kermadec’s presence as fuel to ignite the anger he feeds on for victory.

This therefore makes McEnroe the prime subject to go beneath the surface of athleticism and documentary. He’s the exception that proves the rules and the outlier that changes them. Faraut does a great job exposing how McEnroe’s entire persona could be a carefully constructed performative dance necessary for success. Letting the world become his enemy allowed him to improve his game and hone his focus. By refusing to ignore their mistakes and inconsistencies he could bolster his sense of superiority. And it worked. He was the number one player for four years and cruised his way to the 1984 finals against Ivan Lendl. What then would it mean if he lost? Would it be fate, coincidence, or a direct result of de Kermadec unconsciously pushing him too far?

These are of course rhetorical questions since the unrelated factors in play are infinite and thus render any distraction or motivation de Kermadec’s appearance provides moot. That’s what makes In the Realm of Perfection so fascinating. Faraut is less interested in how cinema affects tennis than how they overlap. He’s searching for the line separating reality from performance and may ultimately prove one doesn’t exist. Because even if the cameras weren’t capturing McEnroe’s temper tantrums, they’d still have occurred. Our lives are built from the ground up and seen by everyone we come into contact with so nothing is untouched by intent or expectation. Documentaries are made by directors and seen by audiences so they’re products of both as well. Truth will always be relative.

So the Jean-Luc Godard sentiments serving as Faraut’s thesis (“Cinema can lie, not sport”) is misleading since we aren’t viewing “sport.” He concludes that even those early instances of de Kermadec re-enacting perfect technique are a lie since humans can’t slow down their movements and retain what makes them effective at full speed. This is why he moved to slomotion as a means of breaking down the real thing, inadvertently turning “sport” into “cinema” by the very act of removing it from its intended venue. What then defines the perfection McEnroe approached in the title? Is it his success on the court? Those carefully curated “perfect” shots de Kermadec used in his film? Or Faraut’s combination of talent, work ethic, and persona? Answer: all the above.


photography:
courtesy of Oscilloscope

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