By Thomas Puhr.
Beyond just chronicling an event, Klein’s sports doc is a cultural artifact in and of itself – not about the time, but of it.
With this year’s French Open making the rounds on the news, now is an ideal opportunity to revisit the tournament’s famous 1981 competition, captured in William Klein’s immersive The French (1982). Rereleased by Metrograph Pictures and running in select theaters in New York, the documentary is a fascinating time capsule – not just of a prestigious sporting event, but also of a bygone era that shares some surprising similarities with our own.
For better or worse, the first question that comes to my mind is whether the film is meant for aficionados or if it could be enjoyed by those (myself included) to whom the rules of the game remain frustratingly opaque. The French’s opening points to the former category, as Klein introduces – via captions – no fewer than ten players and/or coaches within the first five minutes. This approach can be overwhelming, though – in retrospect – it’s a fitting stylistic choice, plunging the viewer headlong into two weeks of barely controlled chaos. Indeed, the director seems equally interested in the logistics of pulling off such a major event as he is in the players or matches themselves. This comprehensive method should draw in casual viewers, too.
Rather than relying solely on ground-level footage, Klein observes the games from a number of perspectives: over the shoulder of a fan way up in the stands, like a spectator himself; through the grainy monitors of television crews covering the proceedings; with other players, who comment on the matches as they await their turn. A lot of the footage ignores the games entirely, instead observing – like an ethnographer – the crowds: their facial reactions (of both joy and sorrow) and side conversations; the humorous symmetry of their heads swiveling back and forth to follow the ball (I couldn’t help but think of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, 1951); the visual elegance of their opening umbrellas in near-unison during one (of what would become many) rain delays. The hulking green tarp used to hurriedly cover the clay court from hard rain nearly becomes a character in itself.
And then, of course, there are the games themselves. Though he introduces probably dozens of people, Klein homes in on a handful of them: Yannick Noah (France), John McEnroe (United States), Ilie Năstase (Romania), and superstar Björn Borg (Sweden). I’ll spare us all the awkwardness of attempting to summarize or explain the matches and will instead just say that as the film progresses, more screen time is allocated to the games proper (which makes sense, given the higher stakes). The championship match between the eventual winner, Borg, and Czechoslovakian player Ivan Lendl is enthralling. Having mostly avoided stylistic flourishes up to this point, the director stretches out a key exchange via extreme slow motion, the only sound being the ball’s distorted echoes as it ricochets off the rackets. It’s a startling moment, one made all the more exhilarating because of its unexpected – almost experimental – stylization.
Klein also seems to have had free rein in terms of his access to the players, even during what you would expect to be private conversations. Part of the fun of these scenes is being able to see the undeniable esteem with which these athletes viewed one another. After losing to Borg, Víctor Pecci (Paraguay), speaks of his opponent not with anger, but awe: “He didn’t even run for them [his lobs],” he tells his coach, baffled. “He’s everywhere, a Martian!” Indeed, Borg is both the film’s biggest star and biggest mystery. Early on, we see him playing against a group of 60 school students; he’s friendly and patient, but the photo opportunity clearly has little interest to him. He maintains the same stoic expression throughout the film, even during the most heated moments on the court. We get the impression that he’s there to win, not to have fun. Tennis, to paraphrase one of his opponents, is clearly his life.
Having been made contemporaneously with that year’s tournament, The French is also illuminating in terms of its depiction of the women athletes. Though it was a historic year for competitors like Hana Mandlíková (the first Czech woman to win the competition), Klein doesn’t give the women nearly as much screen time. An early sequence, for example, juxtaposes the male and female athletes; the former are shown practicing and training, the latter laughing together, ironing their skirts, or blow drying their hair. Two players – Kathy Horvath (United States) and Heidi Eisterlehner (Germany) – are first introduced in their bras and panties. Did Klein contrast the men and women this way in order to draw attention to their unequal treatment? Possibly, but I’m not so sure. It seems less like a critique of objectification than an exemplar of it.
It’s for these reasons that films like The French hold a unique position in the sports documentary genre. They don’t just chronicle an event; they are cultural artifacts in and of themselves – not about the time, but of it.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.