Originally released in 1982, documentary in court French, about the 1981 French Open tennis championships, is a fascinating social and archival document presented again by filmmaker, Francophile and tennis enthusiast Wes Anderson. The photographer and filmmaker of American and French origin William Klein received an order from the French Tennis Federation to film behind the scenes of the 85th edition of Roland-Garros which took place on the clay courts of Roland-Garros. Such access had never been granted before or since, making Klein’s film a rare glimpse into the personalities and procedures involved in the competition.
And there is no shortage of personalities in 1981, at a time when the open era of tennis Grand Slams was still in its infancy and the popularity of the sport was booming. Björn Borg was the defending French Open champion, and his long hair and signature headband were, in fact, the poster image for the 1981 games. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert (then known as name of Evert-Lloyd), Ivan Lendl, Ilie Năstase and Martina Navratilova are all present and we can watch these players and others on and off the pitch. Klein’s camera captures them in players’ living rooms and locker rooms (sometimes in bras and jockstraps), as well as their volleys and antics on the pitch. McEnroe’s tactic of intimidating the referees is on full display, as is Năstase’s playfulness, Lendl’s physical shyness and Arthur Ashe in the stands watching his protege Yannick Noah.
The filmmaker’s interest is in the whole gestalt of the event, rather than just focusing on the competition. We see the crush of fans and paparazzi, the post-game rubbing and ironing of crisp tennis skirts, the view from the broadcast booth, the spectators in the stands, and the rain – the constant back and forth rain that plagued the games of that year.
As in his previous documentary Muhammad Ali, the greatest, Klein is not only interested in athletes and their physical prowess, but also in the social ramifications of their efforts and the world around them. Although French unfolds in chronological order, Klein’s overview is free and always on the lookout for setting apart. Divided into 14 sections, Klein’s narrative is loose and itinerant. The climax involves the final match between Borg and Lendl, and it turns out that was the last French Open that Borg would win, as Klein’s closing footage seems to predict. Unsurprisingly for 1981, the men’s matches received far more attention than the women’s matches. However, all the images still hold up fantastically 40 years later in the glow of Fujifilm’s vivid color film.
Tennis fans are sure to glean more French than the casual observer. Yet Klein’s attention to the inner workings of games makes this film look more like Frederick Wiseman’s on-the-fly observations of public institutions. What you will find in French is a valuable social story rather than a sports broadcast document.