In Julien Faraut’s elegant, witty, and thoughtful documentary, the unusual case is made that there is an ongoing conversation between tennis and cinema. “In the Realm of Perfection” sets up a long, intricate rally between these surprisingly well-matched players, showing how, as in all the best matches, they each raise the other’s game. And so what on paper might be a standard sporting bio-doc, largely relevant only to tennis aficionados or fans of John McEnroe at the height of his powers, instead becomes a lovely meditation on time and movement, dedication and obsession, image and perception. Umpired by Mathieu Amalric’s dulcet voiceover, McEnroe’s astonishing 1984 season is set in the context of the man who monomaniacally recorded it, and we get to spectate.
Gil de Kermadec is the other player, a director who started working for INSEP, the French national sport and training institute, in the 1960s, making instructional films on how to play tennis. These clips are now kind of hilarious in their proscribed naïveté, reducing elaborate and instinctual footwork to a series of step diagrams, like tennis can be taught the way you would the quadrille. But de Kermadec quickly gained not only the understanding that no posed simulation could capture the fluid reality, but also an almost fervently mystical belief that cinema technologies, such as slow motion, might actually be key to unlocking the sport’s secrets. And so Faraut has access to a huge trove of of gorgeously filmic, 16mm color footage, culminating in de Kermadec’s obsessive analysis of McEnroe’s performance at Roland Garros in 1984.
The story of the 1984 French Open has a famous sting in the tail, as McEnroe, on a seemingly unassailable run of triumphs, lost in the final to Ivan Lendl over five sets. It meant that his final win/loss stat for the year stands at 96.5%. It’s still a modern-era record in the men’s game, but nonetheless an older, calmer McEnroe remarks that he finds it hard to commentate on the tournament to this day; he regards that final as the greatest regret of his career. “I wonder how would my life have been different if I’d won it,” he says.
In the physics of McEnroe’s arched back, his grip, his tractor-beam focus, de Kermadec was trying to find the equation for sporting perfection. But just as with that loss — so unlikely it almost seems like an act of self-sabotage — McEnroe’s outsize personality, here at the height of its volatility, was always going to intrude. And so Faraut’s film duly becomes fascinated by McEnroe’s spiky psychology, likening his orchestration of the match’s highs and lows, perhaps with more poetic license than strictest logic, to the way a director controls a set.
It’s hinted that McEnroe’s most remarkable ability, apart from that of selecting miraculous and completely unguessable winning shots, was how he could sulk and rant (he was reportedly the model for Tom Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart in “Amadeus”), and even loose streams of concentration-shattering invective against hapless umpires, linesmen, or spectators, and then come back to win the next point. “I trained for that,” he says, acknowledging a degree of strategizing around his outbursts that slightly belies their spontaneity.
In this, and in so much of the secret choreography of his exceptional game that de Kermadec’s footage reveals, Faraut finds evidence that McEnroe was not just one of the greatest players the sport has seen, and not just analogous to a filmmaker. Instead, “In the Realm of Perfection” imagines him as a true auteur of the tennis court, a sculptor in time and the red clay of Roland Garros, and a storyteller, endlessly retelling a narrative of victory, trying to achieve perfection, and getting 96.5% of the way there.