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Not a biographical nor a standard sports Doc on the famed Tennis champion
Released just as the Serena Williams controversy broke out over her confrontation with a court-side umpire at the U.S. Open (and McEnroe was directly cited by Serena defenders as an example of how male tennis players get away with similar behavior) McENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION would have seemed like a perfect time to debut a Documentary on the infamous bad-boy of 80s tennis: John McEnroe. But, REALM isn't a biographical Doc. Nor, is it a standard Sports Doc (despite ending with the 'big game/match'). Indeed, REALM is more of a deconstruction than anything else (complete with quotes from Jean Luc Godard).
Renowned French Documentarian Gil de Kermadec made a series of films in the 70s and 80s on tennis. He and his team shot hours and hours of footage, including for a 'portrait' movie on John McEnroe that was released in 1985. REALM Director Julien Faraut dug into the vaults and created this movie largely out of that unused footage. But, Faraut isn't primarily focused on creating a movie about McEnroe or the sport, rather, he explores how cinema can be used to cover those topics.
For the first half hour or so, REALM is a heady exercise. We see how raw footage can be molded with editing, sound, narration and other manipulations. It's a fascinating, if academic, exercise. About half-way through the relative shapelessness of the Documentary can get a bit wearying. The Narration by actor Mathieu Amalric isn't there to 'explain' as much as it becomes another tool for Faraut to dissect the form. Some of the music and sound effects are more distancing than illuminating. And, we don't truly learn the meaning of the title until the very end of picture. Some of this is inherent in the footage Faraut 'inherited' from de Kermandec, for, he was also not interested in giving his viewers a full picture of McEnroe (indeed, much of the what was shot in the 80s focuses on only on McEnroe's half of the court. By design, of course).
Still, for all the arty techniques, a portrait does emerge of the prickly McEnroe (Faraut 'cheats' a bit here by including enough outside footage to bring some narrative meaning to the enterprise). Were his rants and outbursts just tools for him to not only let off steam, but, also to manipulate and otherwise intimidate his opponents, and, yes, tennis officials? REALM does climax with a fairly straight-forward (by comparison) depiction of the 1984 French Grand Slam final between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The tension of the match gives the viewer not so much pleasure, as relief that one is able to follow the Documentary is a conventional manner and not feel that they are watching an scholarly exercise. But, it is the rigorously examination of form that marks REALM as one of the year's most fascinating, if, at times, frustrating Documentaries.
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