Challengers: A Dizzying Rally of Infatuation

Luca Guadagnino’s new film serves up a sweltering love triangle and its competitive intimacies over a 13 year period.

There are certain ways of watching tennis. Spectators sit in faraway stands and swivel their heads, following the ball from one end of the court to another; or they watch the match via a TV screen, filmed by a camera fixed high above the players.

In Challengers, by contrast, director Luca Guadagnino observes the game from unexpected vantage points: from an athlete’s point of view mid-play, from the ricocheting perspective of a tennis ball, or looking up from beneath the court, as if the surface was glass. Guadagnino is a sensuous filmmaker with a stylish vision of the world, an approach which he brings to bear on how we view the game and, moreover, its players.

Written by Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers depicts the shifting bond between a trio of tennis players – the bold Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), the bashful Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), and the ambitious Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) – over a 13-year period. As adolescents, Patrick and Art are best friends and close rivals, an intimacy that is heterosexual yet, in typical Guadagnino fashion, brims with erotic tension. After winning a doubles tournament, the pair are filmed eating hotdogs. And it’s Patrick, we later learn, who taught Art how to masturbate.

Their duo is tested by Tashi, a player so talented that she has an Adidas sponsorship and hordes of screaming fans at her matches before she’s even turned pro. The boys are mesmerized by her athleticism, and watch her transfixed on a dancefloor one evening, before both asking her out. “I’m not a homewrecker,” Tashi tells them. “It’s an open relationship,” Patrick jokes. The three decide that whoever wins the next match between Art and Patrick will also win her number.

Thirteen years later, Art and Tashi are married – Art is a star tennis player going through a rough patch; Tashi, having suffered a career-ending knee injury, is his coach – while Patrick is a failure who sleeps in his car. Their once-sweet brotherhood has turned bitter. In a bid to give Art a confidence boost, Tashi suggests he play in a low-stakes Challenger tournament, where the two men come face to face. Once again they are in competition, both in sport and in love.

Like a tennis rally, the film volleys back and forth in time, often erratically. What propels the story forward is the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose. In both scenes of dialogue and gameplay, long sequences of propulsive techno music underscore the action and add tension. Even louder is the non-stop onslaught of brands and logos – Chanel Cs on Tashi’s shoes, the giant Loewe bag she carries, red Uniqlo squares on Art’s shirts. The result is a pop spectacle – hot, energetic and entertaining, like a well-played tennis match.

Guadagnino’s characters regard one another with an infatuated gaze. Even the film’s poster features Zendaya staring intently at Art and Patrick mid-play, each man reflected in a separate sunglass lens. Watching Tashi play for the first time, the men ogle her, spellbound by her beauty and her power. Tashi is equally entranced by them as they open-mouth kiss one another on a motel bed late one night. Several scenes are edited so that the camera quickly oscillates between characters as they speak, giving the sense that no detail is too small to miss. And Guadagnino’s camera is the most obsessive of all, lingering on the actors’ muscular bodies which glisten with sweat. He wants you to watch closely.

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