Imagine watching a tennis match where your head didn’t bob back and forth, following the arc of the ball across the net. You didn’t even look at the score. Instead, you focused intently on one player, how they moved, at the expense of everything else about the sport.
Watching Julien Faraut’s experimental documentary “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is sort of like that. There's a strange allure to the film, how it whimsically and playfully approaches one of the greatest tennis players to play the game from such unexpected angles.
“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. The screening is free for museum members and $7 for all others.
Faraut’s film is built out of a gold mine of pristine 16 mm footage shot in 1985 by Gil de Kermadec on the red clay courts of Roland Garros (better known as the home of the French Open). De Kermadec wasn’t documenting the matches, he was filming the players and their body movements to create a visual technical manual for aspiring players. In the film’s voiceover by Mathieu Almaric, Almaric says de Kermadec followed the development of tennis players “the way other filmmakers followed the development of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic.”
McEnroe was his favorite penguin. De Kermadec amassed tons of footage of McEnroe playing on the red clay of Roland Garros, fascinated by the way his body moved. McEnroe played on “the edge of his senses,” fully present in every way on the court.
Of course, living on the edge of his senses made McEnroe a singular, mercurial presence on the court, demanding perfection from line judges and refs and throwing fits when he didn’t get it. (“Who are you?” he asks one referee. “They picked your name out of a hat.”)
But as angry and chaotic as McEnroe could get courtside, he would snap back into focus when he got back on the court, a contradiction that enthralls Faraut. At one point, McEnroe argues with a line call, wins a point, and then resumes the argument. “It seems like he can open the door and let the lion out of the cage, and still be efficient,” Almaric marvels.
Faraut’s approach to his subject is playful, sometimes adding cartoon sound effects to players’ movements. During one McEnroe tirade, he intercuts dialogue from “Raging Bull” to make it sound like McEnroe is arguing with Robert De Niro.
Faraut’s unorthodox approach reminded me of “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait,” a 2006 documentary about French soccer star Zinedine Zidane that kept the camera locked exclusively on Zidane’s play, so the viewer had no idea what was happening in the game. “In the Realm of Perfection” keeps the focus exclusively on McEnroe until the climax, a wild five-set shootout between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
This solipsistic focus ends up being perfect for McEnroe, whose ultimate opponent wasn’t Lendl or Jimmy Connors or the refs or the audience. McEnroe’s opponent was himself, and an ideal of perfection that he could get close to but never quite attain. In 1985, McEnroe won 82 matches and lost only three, a winning percentage that has never been surpassed.
And 30 years later, you know he still thinks about those three matches.