Here's as thrilling a vision as you're likely to see on a screen this year: young John McEnroe, in the short-shorts and curls of his peak years, tossing a tennis ball up above his head and then leaping, twisting, smashing his racket into it, blasting it across the rust-red clay court of Roland-Garros. We see this again and again, in fluid slow motion that invites us to regard it as we might the time-lapse blooming of a flower, or Eadweard Muybridge's famous movement study of a horse's gait. McEnroe's airborne convulsions are complex, beautiful, balletic, slightly akimbo, fiercely intimidating, an act of will and rage not connected to thought. It is the gathering and expression of ferocious power. Adding to the sense of delicious might: Director Julien Faraut has scored this to the seedily rousing chug of Sonic Youth's "The Sprawl."
And making it even better: McEnroe himself didn't want this filmed. The footage, like most of the searching cine-essay John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, was shot in competition at the French Open in the early 1980s by Gil de Kermadec, a filmmaker specializing in the study of tennis technique. The whir of the specialized camera equipped for slow-motion shots seemed a roar on a hushed tennis court, another distraction for the sensitive champion to rail against. Faraut's film is mostly assembled from a trove of 16 mm footage de Kermadec's team shot at Roland-Garros between '81 and '85, often intimate close-ups of a great caught up in his greatness. Much, of course, is given over to its star's on-court outbursts. John McEnroe doesn't just put us courtside -- it steeps us in the legend's boiling mind.