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‘The French’ Film Review: Reissued Sports Doc Serves a Spirited Look at Tennis’ Golden Age

William Klein goes behind the net in 1981 with Borg, McEnroe, Navratilova, Noah and more

This review of “The French” was first published on June 17, 2021, after its Metrograph.com streaming debut.

Tennis fans exhausted by two weeks of a Grand Slam competition in Paris that ended last Sunday with a thrilling new champion on the women’s side, and perhaps the cementing of GOAT status on the men’s, may believe they’re ready to leave the spring’s red clay season behind for the summer grass and regulation whites at Wimbledon.

But a new reissue of a sports documentary artifact is now available to offer tennis diehards one more rewarding reminder of the enduring thrills and frustrations of battling on the terre battue, William Klein’s movie about the 1981 Roland Garros tournament, “The French.”

Klein, an American-born, French-identified photographer and filmmaker now in his 90s, had long been lauded for his street-smart, irony-laden, instinctively artistic work. His feature debut, the 1966 fashion satire “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” is a jaggedly funny trip, and his often political documentaries are marked by portraits of Muhammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver that examined American societal fissures through the lens of notoriety, fame and outsiderdom.

“The French” (“presented” by Wes Anderson) makes full use of Klein’s unprecedented access inside the chaos of athletic stardom, the tactics of top stars, and the operational workings of a major sporting event. It’s Klein at his most conservatively verité and least pointedly judgmental — he was a fan of the game and setting, after all — but he still offers up a tapestry of personalities, playing and performing that captures what is ineffably beautiful and edgy about tennis, at a time when it was as popular as it had ever been.

The tireless, gifted Swedish superstar Bjorn Borg is there, as that year’s French Open poster icon with his long hair and signature headband, as the marquee draw for pre-tournament charity events, and the overall King of Clay in pre-Nadal times, seemingly unbeatable on the sport’s slowest surface. (He’d won five Roland Garros trophies already.) Also ready to play is reigning champion Chris Evert (then Evert Lloyd), clay’s greatest female player, a sweet-faced American assassin looking for her fifth French Open.

The ones looking to upset them? Borg’s competitors ran from aging greats Ilie Nastase of Romania and Jimmy Connors — both seen in snippets as the abrasive characters they were — to younger upstarts Yannick Noah (the home country’s big hope), John McEnroe (shown in the full flower of his relentless, ump-taunting brattiness) and rising Czech star Ivan Lendl, whose breakneck forehand was turning into a game-changing weapon on par with Borg’s looping topspin shots.

On the women’s side, former Roland Garros champ Virginia Ruzici from Romania is looking for another title chance, but knows it means getting past her players’ lounge pal Evert Lloyd. Klein’s condensation of their quarterfinal is a mini-masterpiece in editing close-ups of Ruzici’s strained expressions with specific rallies to convey how off-court camaraderie is discarded in the heat of a match, or in this case a mismatch, as an on-her-heels Ruzici fights herself as much as her opponent. A sidelines camera captures her mouthing “I can’t believe this,” while an unfazed Evert Lloyd takes care of business. Afterward, Ruzici candidly sums up the push-pull of tennis tour bonding, and its mental challenge: “I forgot about being friends. I really wanted to beat her today.”

The psychology underscoring playing at a top level — something fans everywhere are more aware of today after current phenom Naomi Osaka’s admission of mental-health struggles — makes for some of Klein’s best sequences. Noah, interviewed on the massage table, recalls a grueling 50-point rally he once won against Borg, yet believes he lost in the larger picture after Noah looked for some smiling acknowledgement from his opponent and got nothing. Mental advantage: the reactionless, ready-to-move-on Borg. Klein intercuts (like a rally point) Noah’s perceptive analysis with Borg’s coolly delivered explanation of his demeanor: Why smile when you lose that kind of exchange? But, he insists, calmly, “I’m not a machine.”

Klein saves his wryest commentary on Borg’s routine dominance for how he shows the handsome Swede’s quarterfinal match to a Hungarian hopeful after a shot of the players walking out to an enthusiastic crowd. He shows it by not showing it, essentially, going straight to Borg putting his jacket back on, and the umpire yelling “Game, set, match, Borg!” The effect, like a news station cutting away from footage of a murder, is hilarious.

For those who don’t know or remember that year’s outcome, “The French” will carry a natural suspense as the winnowing-down match highlights — including some dated slo-mo and sound sweetening — are speckled with grounds color, from fan scrums and player conversations (including a just-retired Arthur Ashe in the players’ box watching his discovery, Noah, compete) to weather hiccups and the daily grind of on-site reporters and broadcasters.

The intimacy Klein’s cameras achieve from the places it gets to (including locker rooms with undressing players) is, in a way, its own obsolescent touch alongside the older racquets, hairstyles and short shorts; one finds it hard to imagine Klein’s unfettered access happening in today’s heavily controlled world of professional athletics. For that alone, this fleet sports-doc time capsule is best described by the word Klein leaves off the title “The French”: “Open.”

“The French” opens Friday in New York City theaters after debuting last year exclusively at Metrograph.com.