‘The French’ Brings its A-Game

A world class documentary gets a second life.

Most movie fans are unfamiliar with Frederick Wiseman and even fewer know who William Klein is. In 1981 Klein and his film crew was allowed unfettered access to the French Open tennis championship.

Wiseman, still going strong at 91, is known for his fly-on-the-wall style of documentary filmmaking where there is no narration, just pure observation of an environment. That’s the way Klein’s 1982 doc “The French” unwinds.

Klein, actually older than Wiseman, rose to prominence in the 1950s as a photographer and made influential movies in the 1960s that combined his sense of fashion with the then popular style of French cinema. Klein’s filmography – including “Where Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966) “Mr. Freedom” (1968) – was influential to filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (who also started his career as a photographer) and now Wes Anderson who presents a re-release of “The French.”

I get it. Scorsese presents films like “Peeping Tom” and Anderson naturally pays homage to a film where everyone wears sports clothing. When you think about it Anderson’s films show people in colorful designer sports clothing, headbands and such. Just take a gander at the characters in films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic.”

“The French” observes tennis players who were in their time the modern equivalent of social media stars: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert among others. These sports champs were also cultural icons. This was the first time a film crew was allowed to capture images with full access at the Roland-Garros.

One sequence records a conversation with Arthur Ashe, then recently retired, as he watches a tense match. McEnroe demands that the officials call the game due to rain and they refuse. I think McEnroe was justified for getting vocally belligerent.

Klein resorts to slow motion in a crucial final match. Another scene has Klein switching to an ad-hoc birthday party that happens to be going on nearby. The viewer is constantly transfixed at the imagery on display.

“The French” is presented by Metrograph.com as part their online streaming service, which offers modest membership fees. Anderson will provide an introduction to the film for its June 18th premiere. “The French” will continue to be available until July 1.

Metrograph.com offers unique online screenings including the 1950s British television series “Around the World with Orson Welles” as well as select Éric Rohmer and Werner Herzog films. Metrograph also operates a stand alone movie theater in Manhattan.

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