In 1984, John McEnroe played 85 tennis matches and lost only three. That’s basically perfect. The “realm,” though, in “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection,” a documentary essay by Julien Faraut, implies approximation, propinquity, “almost.” He was in perfection’s neighborhood; human, fitfully and courtesy of actual fits. Though that record — the highest single-season win percentage in tennis’s so-called Open era (for a man) — remains all his. But statistics-driven godliness isn’t the sort of perfection that fascinates Mr. Faraut.
His movie is a dream of Mr. McEnroe, an amusing, hypnotic, whimsical, expertly constructed adventure in craft, built from hours and hours of archival footage of his early 1980s dominance, but only at Roland Garros (which is often called the French Open and which Mr. McEnroe never won). It aims to understand an athlete’s brilliance by turning his game inside out, flipping and reversing it, conjecturing about and psychologizing him, close reading the repetitive motion, quirks, and kinks, breaking down Mr. McEnroe’s breakdowns.
The guy’s wildly temperamental tennis would never be my first choice for such an acutely cinematic undertaking. But Mr. Faraut knows what he’s doing. And what he’s done is cull a fantasia — a kind of punk French new wave — from reels of old film. Those belonged to the director Gil de Kermadec, France’s first national technical director of tennis. He wanted to make instructional films, first during Roland Garros, with star players doing prematch demonstrations. Those seemed fake to him. So he got the tournament to let him film the matches themselves, making natural portraits of players, their technique, style and personalities. The last of these was of John McEnroe.
The result is as strangely satisfying and oblong a rendering of a sport or athlete as I can think of, up there with Roland Barthes’s essay, from 1957, on the spectacle of professional wrestling, and Kon Ichikawa’s saga of the 1964 Olympics.
“In the Realm of Perfection” is slenderer, knottier, more self-consciously besotted than that. It’s both suitable for a minimally furnished den of midcentury modern collectors items and a movie Wes Anderson might have made about Richie Tenenbaum, of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” had life been kinder to Richie. And yet it doesn’t wink. It’s not an antique.
Mr. Faraut’s impressionistic conflation of humor, wonder, horror and sympathy whisks this movie to the deluxe suite of the pleasure palace. We’re not given many time stamps, and it’s not until the final minutes that an actual match surfaces (it’s the 1984 seesaw Roland Garros final against Ivan Lendl). The movie is all ideas about time and duration, all rumination about character, persona, drive and mental collapse. .
Working with the editor Andrei Bogdanov, Mr. Faraut creates montages of Mr. McEnroe’s hopping into a backhand, over and over, of his dam-bursting tirades about the in-ness and out-ness of balls on the clay court. The movie believes enough in him as possibly the greatest ever geometrician of shots to marvel at the angles. It uses the tennis writing of the film critic Serge Daney as one source of insight and the claim that Mr. McEnroe was Tom Hulce’s inspiration to play Mozart as a bratty prodigy in “Amadeus” as another. One of Mr. McEnroe’s on-court meltdowns gets overlain with the dialogue from one of Jake LaMotta’s from “Raging Bull.” Sounds a tad much, I know — Mozart and LaMotta? But wasn’t that Mr. McEnroe at his impossible best: black eyes and symphonies?
“In the Realm of Perfection” arrives a week before the United States Open starts. And a not-insignificant aspect of John McEnroe’s relationship to it — and other major tournaments — is now as a glorified spectator. He sits in a booth and comments, for ESPN, NBC and the BBC, on the tennis other people play — calmer, saner, safe from himself.