Film Comment Recommends: The French
This article appeared in the August 12 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The French (William Klein, 1981)
Opens in Metrograph’s virtual cinema on August 13
Midway through William Klein’s sprawling yet incisive portrait of the 1981 French Open, the filmmaker cuts and loops a phrase from an interview with soon-to-be champion Björn Borg: “I’m not a machine. I’m like everybody else.” This flash of artifice in a film that otherwise adheres to the cinéma vérité rulebook highlights Klein’s real interest here: the essential humanity, the everyday strangeness, of these apparently superhuman athletes. (Also the subject of this classic article from The Onion). Klein’s democratic camera frequently strays from the on-court action toward the faces, hands, and Rohmer-esque fashions of the audience, catching snatches of conversation among random fans, announcers, coaches, and athletes like Arthur Ashe (whose whispered analysis of an in-progress match is more insightful than any sports broadcast I’ve seen). Ball boys, umpires, autograph-hunters, world-eating superstars: all are equally important in the film’s portrait of the social and sporting event that knits them together. Nonetheless, the stars shine brightest here. Klein follows a handful of tennis players through the tournament, tracking them from the locker room to training, where these charismatic celebrities—Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Virginia Ruzici, Yannick Noah—are shown to be, as Us Weekly might put it, “just like us!” The only one who maintains distance, his face never even cracking into a smile, is Björn Borg. For all of Klein’s efforts at humanization, Borg remains untouchable: not a machine, but a sad, strange god who seems simply to want respite from his insatiable urge to win.