The movies play favorites. They always have. Action, not thought. Beauty, not homeliness. Blood, not water. Turbulence, not calm. War, not peace.
The favoritism extends to the playing field. More accurately, it means preferring ring and court to playing field. Boxing is the movies’ favorite sport. Just two contestants means lots of opportunities for close-ups, with no helmets or caps to obscure faces. It has blood and violence both. Even better, a confined but not constricting space makes the boxing ring its own version of the movie frame.
A distant second as athletic favorite for the movies is tennis. If you doubt that, just ask Alfred Hitchcock. “Strangers on a Train,” anyone? Aside from the violence, tennis shares many of the visual attractions of boxing, only with rackets instead of fists and a net separating the competitors.
So it’s a sort of grace note that Julien Faurat’s unusual and absorbing documentary, “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection,” includes a snippet from the soundtrack of “Raging Bull,” probably the greatest and certainly the fiercest and most aestheticized of boxing movies.
The McEnroe documentary also includes animated stick figures, footage from “Amadeus” — Tom Hulce, who plays Mozart, has said that watching McEnroe’s notoriously notorious on-court behavior helped inspire his performance — an epigraph from Jean-Luc Godard, multiple quotations from the French film critic Serge Daney, a bit of contemporary commentary from Bud Collins, and narration from the French film star Mathieu Amalric. Amalric’s clear but accented English — the lion’s share of the film consists of footage of McEnroe playing at the French Open in 1984 and 1985 — seems oddly right: detached, quizzical, slightly forensic. Those qualities pretty much describe the documentary itself. Truly, it’s one-of-a-kind.
Maybe the closest thing to it is “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” (2006), about the French soccer star. That remarkable documentary excluded almost everything else while training the camera on Zidane during a single match. As noted, Faurat keeps bringing things in — and that extends to the soundtrack, where we hear Mozart, Black Flag, and Serge Teyssot-Gay’s excellent score. Somehow it all hangs together.
All credit to Faurat for that ability to forge coherence out of such wildly disparate materials. He does have three things in particular going for him. First is that his focus is on the French Open. The tournament is played on clay. That surface plays slower, making for a more elegant game. Watching players slide on it is lovely, as is the redness underfoot. The color can have startling effects. At one point, McEnroe ends up spread-eagled on the court, having failed to reach a shot. When he rises, the large splotch on his white shirt looks like nothing so much as a spreading blood stain.
The second thing Faurat has going for him is the remarkable footage shot by the French filmmaker Gil de Kermadec as part of a decades-long, uniquely granular chronicling of the tournament. The film is as much a tribute to him as it is to McEnroe.
The third thing is, of course, McEnroe. David Foster Wallace wrote a famous essay called “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” Even then, at the height of his game, there was nothing theological about watching McEnroe. He looks so scrawny and undermuscled. The short shorts and high-ish socks don’t help, either. At one point, we see him with his shirt off. The sight isn’t pretty. He looks like an undernourished mollusk, removed from his shell. The beauty of McEnroe was wholly in his game, not in his person.
That game: All right, does miraculousness count as religion? McEnroe’s finesse remains a thing of wonder. A dozen years after Wallace’s essay, Federer continues to epitomize visual grace. He’s all but Astairean (talk about the movies playing favorites). McEnroe’s grace was not in his own person. It owed everything to how adeptly he used his racket and his utter fearlessness in approaching the net.
The net is the most dangerous place on the tennis court, but also the most fertile in possibility. The closer a player gets, the quicker his reactions need to be and the less his margin of error. He’s panning for gold on a glacier: The most nuggets are where the ice is thinnest and slipperiest.
The net exposes a player’s game as nowhere else does. It’s all improvisation there, and he’s like a great jazz musician soloing. Instinct takes over from talent — or, rather, the two become interchangeable. The net is where McEnroe was supreme. In many ways, Faraut’s film is less about tennis, per se, than it is a character study and meditation on time and grace (that word again). Yet any tennis fan will want to watch it as a textbook demonstration of how much the game has changed at the championship level. The net, McEnroe’s home away from home, is now largely abandoned as the sport has become a thing of almost-brutal power and velocity.
Young tennis fans will be amazed to see the man they now know as a thoughtful and much-admired tennis commentator — an elder statesman of the sport — being famously difficult on the court. Remember that mention of an audio clip from “Raging Bull”? If McEnroe is Jake LaMotta, then he went after the courtside tennis officials the way LaMotta did Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet motivating all the tantrums and bratty behavior isn’t gamesmanship and an obsession with winning (hello, Jimmy Connors). It’s an almost-spiritual pursuit of proper performance. “I think things would be easier if people realized it’s just me making a statement,” we hear McEnroe say of his berating the officials. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine, rather than me complaining just for the hell of it.” However unconventionally, Julien Faraut has done his job, too. Even McEnroe would have to agree.
JOHN McENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION
Directed by Julien Faraut. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates from Nov. 11-Nov. 30. 95 minutes. In French and English, with subtitles. Unrated (tormenting of tennis officials, f-bombs from Jake LaMotta, courtesy of Robert De Niro).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.