'In the Realm of Perfection' ('L'Empire de la perfection'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Game, set, match — even if the win's a tad exhausting.

Tennis great John McEnroe's spiky temper tantrums, as well as his fearsome serve and sneaky backhand, get detailed scrutiny in this quirky cine sportif essay.

If you've ever wished to explore the intersection between tennis and French film theory, then In the Realm of Perfection is your chance. Taking his cue from Jean-Luc Godard's comment, "Cinema lies, sport doesn't," writer-director Julien Faraut cracks open an archive of vintage tennis instructional films and gets caught up in an obsessive study of the moves and mood swings of John McEnroe at the height of his bad-boy fame on the clay court.

Spry and playful at times, pedantic and ponderously repetitive at others, the film is French down to its sweaty tennis socks and ultimately a touch too self-satisfied in its clever unconventionality. But as an idiosyncratic sports doc about an unapologetically adversarial personality, it will find a receptive audience, especially among tennis buffs.

Last year's narrative feature Borg/McEnroe focused on the sizzling 1980 Wimbledon final between ice-cool Swede Bjorn Borg and famously combustible American brat McEnroe. Faraut chisels more intellectualized — though nonetheless frequently exciting — entertainment out of the 1984 French Open face-off that McEnroe lost to Czech dynamo Ivan Lendl, capping his best-ever season with his bitterest defeat. But although the blow-by-blow of that fierce contest takes up a sizable chunk of the movie, Faraut is in no hurry to get there.

The director's approach makes sense when you consider that influential French film critic Serge Daney, the onetime editor of Cahiers du Cinema, wrote regularly on tennis once he jumped to Liberation in the 1980s. "One thing moves him," the late Daney opined of McEnroe. "The eternal injustice of which he and only he is the victim. He only plays well if he feels everyone is against him. Hostility is his drug." Daney, his words read with subtle amusement by narrator Mathieu Amalric, then breaks down the various phases of McEnroe's tantrums like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, questioning whether McEnroe is in fact ruled by his flaring temper or a performer in canny control.

Faraut's entree to the subject is via France's Institut National du Sport et de l'Education Physique, where he has worked for 15 years. He airs the view that instructional films are as much a cinematic genre as any other, and the first images he uses are goofy-looking vintage how-to-play-tennis clips that evoke Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. But he goes on to demonstrate swiftly how a player's moves in a posed demonstration never correspond to the spontaneous action of an actual match.

The INSEP's Gil de Kermadec made instructional films from the 1960s through the 1980s, and among his endless reels Faraut finds a disproportionate amount of 16mm color footage covering McEnroe, all of it shot on the red clay courts of the Roland Garros Stadium in Paris.

With use of sharp graphics, extensive slow-motion, stick-figure animation and eclectic music choices, accompanied by Amalric's droll voiceovers (the actor also will narrate an English-language version), Faraut zeroes in on the particulars of McEnroe's style. We witness, for instance, how the force of the left-handed player's serve is less its power and speed than its unpredictability, a surprise factor also evident in his formidable backhand. The distinction of de Kermadec's films is that his agile camera is always trained on one player only, never encompassing the entire scope of the match and creating the illusion that the player is in a contest with himself.

That perception is enhanced by immersive clips showing the irascible nature of McEnroe on the court, confrontational with umpires and always ready to dispute a decision. As the press corps grew in the stadium, McEnroe's ire frequently was turned toward the distraction of cameramen, photographers and sound recordists, while de Kermadec was boxed into an increasingly tight space, shooting from behind a window in the bottom of the stands. But that hidey-hole doesn't always shield him from McEnroe's irritation.

As a unique portrait of competitive drive, this is fascinating stuff, even if Faraut occasionally gets a little cute, for example overdubbing a McEnroe spat with a profanity-laced Robert De Niro harangue from Raging Bull. One interesting observation is that while belligerence of this intensity would throw most sportsmen off their game, McEnroe appears to thrive on it. Faraut likens him to Mozart, revealing that Tom Hulce prepared to play the enfant terrible composer in Milos Forman's Amadeus by studying McEnroe's volatile behavior on the court. There's amusing illustration also of McEnroe's hatred of photo sessions and the attendant publicity requirements of being a championship tennis star.

Snippets of interviews with the player's mother trace the consuming thirst for victory back to his childhood, while a 1980s soundbite of American commentary posits that tennis is a sport for killers, and McEnroe is a direct reflection of the harsh, violent times the country was then living through.

However, In the Realm of Perfection makes the point that McEnroe's failure to control his defensive anger became part of the spectacle, and then makes it again and again. For all its florid critical discourse and analog tech charms, the film begins to feel stretched thin at feature length until it finally gets to the drama of the French Open clash against Lendl.

Faraut plays with sound techniques to heighten that drama, creating a sense of time suspended between the delivery and landing of each serve, its violent thwack followed by echoing reverb. The trippy accompaniment of wailing rock guitars or simmering spaghetti Western-style scoring effectively amps up the tension, turning the hard-fought match into an epic tragedy climaxing in anguish and rage. Even infrequent tennis followers possibly know the outcome of the contest, but the buildup is nonetheless remarkably suspenseful.

Production company: UFO Production
Director-screenwriter: Julien Faraut
Producers: William Jehannin, Raphaelle Delauche
Director of photography: Julien Faraut
Music: Serge Teyssot Gay
Editor: Andrei Bogdanov
Narrator: Mathieu Amalric
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Film Constellation

94 minutes