Politics, cinema, and literature can lie, not sport.

—Jean-Luc Godard

When one considers the history and scope of cinema, rarely do “how-to” instruction videos come to mind. But there they are, hours upon hours of step-by-step techniques recorded for posterity: How to dance, how to cook, how to play tennis, and, yes, even, how to make a movie.

What then is John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection? It’s a magnificent “how to see” presented with analytical relish, a documentary directed by Julien Faraut about Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker fascinated by tennis, specifically the tennis player John McEnroe.

In 1966, de Kermadec, the first national technical director of tennis in France, produced a series of how-to-play-tennis industrials. These instructional movies—filmed in black and white with performers following prescribed and simple steps—break down each serve, forehand and backhand into simple mechanics. It’s as boring as you think it is. Faraut opens John McEnroe with this footage, showing us why de Kermadec was so dissatisfied with the results. What de Kermadec sought was an analysis of tennis in motion, not a construction of mechanics.

His answer? Film the French Open. Using multiple cameras, de Kermadec turned his lens to the famous clay courts of Roland Garros, using the tournament to analyze what made each player unique. Fast forward to 1984, and de Kermadec finally finds the subject he’s been waiting for: a 26-year-old left-handed McEnroe.

Using three cameras, all of them trained on McEnroe—and only McEnroe—de Kermadec filmed every point, win, and outburst. Thirty-odd years later, Faraut found the footage and finished de Kermadec’s seminal work.

Faraut’s fascination with de Kermadec’s study, de Kermadec’s obsession with McEnroe, and McEnroe’s relentless pursuit of perfection synthesize into one of the most original documentaries. As mentioned above, de Kermadec did not film the matches; he filmed McEnroe. He filmed a man playing not against an opponent but himself. As McEnroe glides along the clay to strike a forehand, he pauses, runs to the net, then back to deliver the drop shot. We do not see the return volley, the other player, or the emotional swing of the match; we just see McEnroe.

Naturally, there is no way to discuss McEnroe without discussing his temper, his on-court tantrums, and what they might signify. Faraut wonders if they were not a part of the McEnroe performance, even drawing a connection between McEnroe’s antics and Robert de Niro’s intimidating acting style.

And yet there is an endless fascination with watching McEnroe on the court, outburst or not. For McEnroe, every point was a battle he refused to concede. It didn’t matter if it was Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, or Ivan Lendl standing on the opposite baseline, McEnroe’s greatest opponent would always be John McEnroe. What perfection Faraut and de Kermadec managed in bringing that eternal match to fruition.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection / L’empire de la perfection (2018)
Directed by Julien Faraut
Produced by Raphaëlle Delauche, William Jéhannin
Starring: John McEnroe, Mathieu Amalric, Gil de Kermadec
Oscilloscope Laboratories, Not rated, Running time 95 minutes, Premiered Feb. 18, 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 5, “Tennis, anyone?