Documentary Review: A Classic from a more Graceful Era in Tennis returns — “The French” (1982)

In the years since William Klein’s intimate “all access” tennis documentary “The French” came out, it’s been somewhat displaced as the definitive statement on that glorious era in tennis — the late’70s through the mid-’80s.

“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” (2018) is a genre-best dissection of tennis, one player’s game and his psyche during McEnroe’s years attempting “perfection” at Roland Garros Stadium outside of Paris, a movie assembled thanks to an archivist’s obsessive examination of the hours and hours of footage that the French shot of McEnroe’s matches there.

But in 1981, photographer and filmmaker William Klein (“Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”) was granted the sort of access sports rarely permits today. “The French” allowed him into their tourney, behind the scenes, in the alley with the ballgirls and ballboys, in the locker rooms with the players and in the various courts of the stadium complex to paint an immersive portrait of French’s premiere annual sporting event.

Fans of the game with a few years on them will see players we barely remember — the also-rans in the era of Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Navritilova and Evert — TV broadcasters whose names can’t quite reach the tip of the tongue any more, and a sport that seems more quaint — wooden rackets dominated — more graceful and a helluva lot less corporate than tennis is today.

Here’s McEnroe, bashfully brought to the lectern to praise sponsor Canon for giving every player in the tourney a Canon AE-1. That was a camera, kids. It used “film.” There are “bad boys” Ilie “Nasty” Nastase and Jimmy Connors, horsing around in a practice set just before the tourney begins, a crowd roaring with laughter at their antics.

“Nasty,” who could be a nightmare of bad sportsmanship to play against, takes his goofy act into the waiting room beneath the stadium, tickling Chris Evert and Virginia Ruzici as they’re about to face off in a women’s watch. And then we see the past-his-prime Nastase, working the crowd, joking around in French, knock off seeded American Eliot Teltscher in the first round, with Teltscher tossing a classic tennis-brat meltdown as press and others descend on him after his defeat.

Klein & Crew pay particular attention to the reigning king of men’s tennis, Bjorn Borg, on court and off — good naturedly doing promotional events, interacting with pushy fans — and one obnoxious French ballboy. He plays and he wins, insisting to one and all “I’m not a machine. I’m like everybody else.” The final images of “The French” are of Borg in victory, and of the later defeat at the hands of the star who would replace him.

And there’s a lot of coverage of the Great French Hope, Yannick Noah, battling for recognition, analyzing his game and his foot injuries at length as he lies, naked save for his jock strap, on a trainer’s table.

You’d be hard-pressed to find this kind of access to today’s athletes on film, with even footage gathered for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” subject to a lot of restrictions from the most corporate sports entity of them all — the NFL.

“The French” doesn’t so much tell a story as capture a moment from a more innocent age, with lax security, Europeans smoking in the stands and assorted sportscasters asking for “something a little stronger” to sip during the various long rallies and longer matches from an age when the rackets were made of wood and the players, even the most efficient, were never confused for “machines.”

Rating: unrated, nudity, profanity, smoking

Cast: Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Yannick Noah, Ilie Nastase, Virginia Ruzici,
Hana Mandlíková, Thierry Tulasne, Fred Perry, Don Budge and Arthur Ashe

Credits: Directed by William Klein. A Metrograph release.

Running time: 2:10

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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