It’s always a pleasure to watch someone do something exceptionally well, so this French documentary provides a real treat when it shows John McEnroe in his prime, technical brilliance and famed belligerence both in full flow. But director Julien Faraut isn’t interested in traditional sports analysis, eschewing more than a cursory mention of McEnroe’s rise through the tennis ranks or his career after the 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl that caps this film. Instead, he concentrates on the nature of tennis and the relationship between camera and subject: a more philosophical approach than you might expect and one that is occasionally wearisome.
Armed with a wealth of footage from tennis documentarian Gil de Kermadec, Faraut demonstrates McEnroe’s evident dislike of being filmed (he tries to have cameras removed from the court and threatens a sound recordist), looks at the nature of his game and examines the relationship between sport and cinema. He touches on some fascinating questions about McEnroe’s strategic use of temper. In a contemporary interview, McEnroe claims that his outbursts were more the result of demanding perfection in those around him than bad sportsmanship per se.
Generally, however, this doc is more about the implications of putting sport on film (it opens with Jean-Luc Godard’s quote that ‘Cinema lies. Sport doesn’t’) than it is about John McEnroe as a player, and it often ventures into the self-consciously obscure. The voiceover from actor Mathieu Amalric verges on soporific, in contrast with Faraut’s flamboyant and sometimes distracting stylistic flourishes. Still, there are enough moments of revelation here to hold your attention.