It’s an ‘us, open’ relationship in the sexy, scintillating Challengers

Director: Luca Guadagnino Starring: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor Running Time: 131 minutes

It’s a film of thrusting, grasping, sweating, screaming. Every time that safe, successful Art Donaldson and self-conscious bad boy Patrick Zweig volley the ball back towards each other, it’s about so much more for the former pals than winning the low-profile tennis tournament they’ve found themselves competing in. Watching them poker-faced is Tashi Duncan, a superstar-cut-short turned ruthless coach and manager. The boys are busting their balls, for attention, for approval, for acknowledgment as equals, desperately from Tashi and, mostly unknowingly, from each other. The sparse crowd gathered for the Phil’s Tire Town Championship have no idea that they’re caught in the latest set of a sexually charged three-way power play.

Years ago, Tashi told the pair that tennis is like a relationship, and it seems at first like an on-the-nose metaphor. As Challengers slowly unravels Art, Patrick and Tashi’s history, the film returns that serve and inverts it; for this merciless ménage, their relationship is like tennis; hypnotic, gruelling, punishingly poised, overwhelmingly tense, ecstatically won. Like in many of Luca Guadagnino’s movies, beautiful rich people are baking in the sun and basking in their lust. Like in his remake of Suspiria, blood and bones will be offered up to release a goddess. Never before though, has the director been having as much fun.

We volley across timelines as Challengers love-triangle falls into place. In 2019, star Art (Mike Faist) is in a career slump; with the US Open looming, his life coach wife Tashi (Zendaya) doing anything to snap him out of it, except return his desperate affections. He’s ready to hang it up, while she has him pegged, as it were, for one last dance – to up his confidence she has him signed up for a few easy victories at a Challengers tournament. But a wildcard meets her Wildcard – Patrick (Josh O’Connor) is living prize money to prize money in exactly these kind of tin can-offs. Snapshots across the 13 years they’ve known each other smash into focus – Art and Patrick’s touchy-feely friendship, their mutual pursuit of Tashi, her inevitable rise snapped. Art, a rankings climber who plays the percentages, turns out to have been an unlikely Mr. Steal Your Girl to Patrick, the showboat layabout who caught feelings.

Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay is perfectly poised – the trio hardly change at all across the time they know each other, familiarising us with their rhythms, it’s also true to life for athlete obsessives, who give themselves over in pursuit of perfection. Tashi feels that most knowingly – Challengers has plenty of cheeky visual metaphors, but over all of them is the film itself as the gag – unable to satisfy herself, she’s tethered to boys too in their own head to do it.

Each conversation between the characters shifts gears seamlessly when it seems like one has the upper hand. Laser focused on Art, Patrick and Tashi (Tashi’s mom and her and Art’s daughter are maybe the only characters both with lines AND a name that’s not their job), the story reveals just how intertwined they are in every big story beat and every tiny change in the characters’ body language, an assignment its leads are well up for taking on.

It’s seen as settled law that we don’t have Movie Stars anymore, but Zendaya is one of the up-and-comers gradually pushing back against that narrative. Carefully picking projects, slyly whipping up stans, and best suited to big pictures with bold close ups. A producer here too, her passion for the material is palpable, Tashi being the kind of understandably ruthless, compellingly unpredictable and wonderfully acid-tongued character that any actress would kill for. When she gags Patrick by telling him “you’d have a better shot with a gun in your mouth”, femme fatale cuntery meeting Succession steel, she vaults up the rankings to take her place as an A-Lister.

O’Connor is the show-stealer, slathered in smarm like he’s rolled around in Matty Healy’s grease, when his playful flirting cracks into desperate resentment, the actor combines the best of his previous roles to date. Faist is less showy, but the very subtle manipulative streak under his cowed and cucked demeanour is a driving force throughout the film, and the actor’s theatrical looseness is tightly wound up here. Both boys bounce brilliantly off Zendaya, but with each other they’re electric; boyish grappling and sauna sneering equally erotically charged.

The closer they get to each other physically, the more in sync they seem, in contrast, Tashi never feels emotionally further away than when she’s intimate with either. Guadagnino is knowing, but not winking, about Patrick and Art’s attraction, almost always filtering it through their longing for their girl. They practically straddle each other swapping locker room talk about her, their calorie craving athlete bodies chomping down every phallic food item in sight.

Focused on the boy’s bodies – unthinkingly close to each other, tense and tightly-wound with Tashi – Guadagnino archly but intriguingly presents the big question Challengers prompts in him – could there be anything more homoerotically charged than wanting the same thing the same amount? The visual language he uses for this is delightfully playful, gradually picking up in intensity. When the boys first see Tashi on court, they watch her game with the slack-jawed awe of an 80s boob comedy, Animal House in the US Junior Open stands, slo-mo and thousand-yard stares. Melodramatic lovemaking in a storm, dick-measuring at the sauna, the director is going for broke, bigger and bolder the longer the film progresses.

This progresses to ambitious, but potentially disorienting, antics on the court by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Their lens gets stuck to every part of the game. To the ball as it flies between Art and Patrick, literally sandwiching us in between their back and forth. It watches them from above and below, the better to see the merry dance Tashi is leading them on, the racket-smashing destruction of their passions. It puts us not in the boy’s shoes, but on their rackets, the heart on their sleeves as they serve. It’s a lot, especially paired with the pulsing synth score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, slinking in and out of scenes, but it builds gradually, an indulgently ambling opening eventually taking us to a fast-paced finish.

Guadagnino is obviously disinterested in tennis, but absolutely fascinated with the passions that play it. This is not a sports movie, but a 30s screwball meets 90s erotic thriller. He uses every tool at his disposal in an audio-visual tour-de-force. Synth meets screams, break-neck quick montages flow into extended airless arguments. It’s breath-taking, sexy, stylish, magnetic. Skipping the strawberries and going right for the cream, Challengers is a brilliantly bold smash.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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