Any good referee should cry “foul” that The French isn’t widely considered a canonical doc. This 1982 film, which opens in a remastered re-issue at TIFF Lightbox this weekend, is just about the most thrilling sports documentary ever made. Director William Klein hits the courts and goes behind the scenes of the 85th Roland-Garros Tournament (aka the French Open). In doing so, The French captures the thrill of the game and the drive that makes the players sweat. It observes the tennis champs from every best seat in the house through an array of 16mm handheld cameras. One can only watch the tennis balls smash from either side of the net with wonder that no cameraperson was harmed in the process.
The French weaves through the intricacies of the tournament as Klein, an American-French photographer and filmmaker, gains extraordinary access to the game. The immediacy with which the film observes the big tennis stars of the day, like Björn Borg, the Swedish superstar who enters Stade Roland Garros with eyes on a fourth consecutive championship, is impressive and without any whiff of public relations. The star player and heartthrob has fans screaming like the girls of Lonely Boy when they’re in his presence.
The French captures the makings of the star system of pro tennis players, too, from the vicissitudes that upstart French player Yannick Noah faces (a great performance, but also dubious refereeing that carries obvious shades of racism) to the bratty, crowd-pleasing behaviour of bad boy John McEnroe. In one plum scene, McEnroe expresses his disapproval about playing in the rain and completely reams out the ref before the crowd. The film affords objective glimpses of sports icons at their best and worst. It captures the sweat, heartache, and frustration that make a player a star.
Off the Court
Beyond the thrilling images of the players in action, The French enjoys an extraordinary glimpse of the production entailed in the tournament. Klein captures elements behind the scenes that should be mundane, but are positively thrilling. For example, the film observes various executives toing and froing about the schedule. They debate the politics of scheduling the women’s games at a dud hour, or risking the crowds if they shuffle the star male players to “lesser” time slots. The gendered nature of the star system is truly fascinating. Women like Chris Evert, Virginia Ruzici, Martina Navratilova, and Czech upstart Hanna Mandlíková often outplay the men, but don’t receive the same consideration across all levels of the tournament. Similarly, the ratio of screentime devoted to the men’s games versus the women’s matches is a telling truth about point of view.
At the same time, the film shows how many hands go into the making of a star. Noah, for example, undergoes physiotherapy when a foot injury threatens to derail his shot at the title. The French pauses as the cameras observe, somewhat voyeuristically, as Noah enjoys a foot massage to soothe his pain. From the locker rooms to the heat of battle on the clay court, Klein accesses every inch of the stadium.
Vérité at Its Finest
The French does for tennis what Woodstock does for music. Moreover, its influence most strikingly bears on Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller’s immersive portrait of the moon landing. Like those docs, The French thrills with its ability to capture scale and minutiae. On one hand, the scope of the film is without equal. On the other, The French boasts the best aspects of cinéma vérité by capturing small details that even a fan with courtside seats couldn’t witness.
Klein’s observational approach eschews narration, except for one humorous case in which a viewer in the stands offers a play-by-play. In this moment, though, the camera looks not at the court, but at the commentator in a direct address fashion. The tennis might be the hook of The French, but what’s happening off the court—the fans, the massages, the cake eating—is the meat.
And, of course, there’s the tennis. Klein’s 16mm cameras record the matches with elegant fury. The coverage of each game must be seen to be believed, particularly for the range of sweaty close-ups the film delivers during some history-making serves and slams. Sports can often be a bore to watch, but when they’re captured as vividly as they are here, docs like The French can make a tennis fan out of everyone.