John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection review: pleasingly eccentric sports doc shows the artistry behind the outbursts

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'Hostility is his drug': A still from John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
'Hostility is his drug': A still from John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Dir: Julien Faraut. 12A cert, 95 mins

During the 1984 Tennis Open at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, John McEnroe was being recorded like he never would be again. Hired by a French sports institute to put together instructional videos for future players, a director called Gil de Kermadec used multiple 16mm cameras to capture the whole tournament for technical analysis.

What he put together – including stick-man diagrams of McEnroe’s unusual serving style – is briefly shown in John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Julien Faraut’s offbeat but incisive essay-documentary. But this film delves into the treasure trove of what was never used, trawling through these vivid, grainy hours of McEnroe’s play, including the inevitable hissy fits, to ruminate on his stubborn quest for perfection and also consider how tennis as a spectator sport speaks to the aesthetics of filmmaking.

What sets tennis apart from many games is the potentially infinite length of a given match, and it’s this durational aspect which intrigued the film critic Serge Daney, who wrote about the sport extensively after his days editing Cahiers du Cinéma. The shortest games on record are about the length of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; but the longest one, Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, is the length of all three Godfather films with an hour’s break between them.

The film ponders how McEnroe set the tempo for his own matches, not only mid-rally, but in between points, with his legendary strops and complaints to the umpire about stray line calls. He’s not happy about the cameras, either, scowling at hidden boom covers in his eyeline. Faraut capably explores the psychology of such outbursts and what they reveal about his sporting goals.

“McEnroe only plays well if he feels that everyone is against him,” wrote the late Daney. “Hostility is his drug. All this acting and theatre of self-destruction is a technique – it’s a ploy to transform this hostility that he feels is bearing down on him into wonderful tennis.”

With its thickly-accented voiceovers, re-recorded into English by Mathieu Amalric, the film is a pleasingly eccentric watch, and one full of rare insights: we learn that Tom Hulce, researching how to play Mozart in Amadeus, studied McEnroe’s petulance on the court. It’s certainly not the prerogative of your average sports doc to choose a setback, rather than a famous victory, for its one detailed set piece.

McEnroe’s 1984 season was so nearly flawless, until his final with Ivan Lendl at Roland Garros, which saw him fritter away a two-set lead and fail. His win stats for that year stand at 96.5%, still a record. And that match still keeps him up late at night, mourning the perfection that might have been.