Review | Challengers | 2024

Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One need not be particularly interested in sports to find Luca Guadagnino's new tennis drama, Challengers, compelling. Guadagnino frames his tennis matches as either gladiatorial blood sports or sex, and sometimes both at the same time. Tennis is a relationship, Zendaya's Tashi Donaldson explains; and indeed, the tennis matches here are often thinly veiled stand-ins for dialogue the characters are either unwilling or unable to have.

The romantic entanglement comes from one-time pro-tennis hopeful Tashi, and two best friends, Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor). One-time tennis partners, a rift forms between them when both fall in love with Tashi, whose career is cut short by a knee injury, leading her to become a highly successful coach whose heart nevertheless longs to play. The film follows several years in their lives as they split up, reunite, and trade partners, eventually ending where the film begins, with Art and Patrick once again essentially dueling on the tennis court for Tashi's hand.

The film slowly reveals the context of what we're watching through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, gradually bringing the emotional complexity of those opening moments into full focus. Guadagnino's characters are all flawed in some way, each willing to use and hurt the others in pursuit of their own individual goals. But there is something that inexorably holds them all together, a connection that is stronger as three than it ever was as two. Therein lies the film's central conflict - how do people reconcile their own selfish desires with their love of another person? Or in this case, people? The tennis matches themselves are sweaty and propulsive, shot with the erotic energy of a sex scene, with Guadagnino's camera becoming untethered from reality - flying on the back of a tennis ball or swooping up under the court, to create an exhilarating, often breathtaking, sensory experience; a bisexual love triangle that moves from the bedroom to the tennis court and back again.

Challengers seeks to leave us just as breathless as its characters, and it works. Interestingly, I was most reminded of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's 2012 documentary Leviathan in which the camera was thrown loose from the typical bounds of natural camera movement to become something almost otherworldly. Set to a pulsing techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film feels like it's in a constant state of motion, glances are lobbed between its characters like tennis balls being bandied about on a court. erotic tension vibrating throughout every frame. It's refreshing in this sexless cinematic landscape to see a film so unafraid of sexuality; and with Love Lies Bleeding barely in our review mirror, its enough to give one hope that horny cinema isn't dead. 

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CHALLENGERS | Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Stars Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O'Connor, Darnell Appling | Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity | Now playing in theatrs nationwide.


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