Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Challengers’ is an Erotic Ace

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: Justin Kuritzkes
Stars: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

Synopsis: Tashi, a former tennis prodigy turned coach is married to a champion on a losing streak. Her strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend.


Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is sweaty, sizzling, and so sexy. It pumps and throbs with desire and power –through the lens of professional tennis. The opening shots establish we aren’t just watching a spectator sport, we are watching the spectator; Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) and what she’s seeing is intercourse. We are voyeurs and Luca Guadagnino trains our eye to the hyper-erotic. Challengers is the love triangle film of the year and possibly one of best films about carnal and professional drive, ever.

Utilizing a non-linear narrative, Challengers feeds the audience all they need to know about what motivates the characters, but also leaves certain aspects unexplained. The first shot is the ‘now’ (2019) the country club challenger match in New Rochelle sponsored by some random tire shop – where the three protagonists metaphorically come together to consummate their decades long love affair, not only with tennis, but with each other. Love and hate co-exist between all of them, for the sport and for each other. Justin Kuritzkes’ clever Ménage à trois drama uses the tennis court as the space for them to expend their galvanizing chemistry.

In the lead up to the grimy match we see Tashi Duncan push her now burned out former Grand Slam winning husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) through a punishing training regime. He has been injured (scars and calluses show that professional tennis is brutal) and his confidence is gone. He doesn’t particularly want to play any longer and is being beaten by people who are not even on the seeded table. He’s sliding down the ATP rankings. Despite Tashi, who is both his manager and trainer, telling him to “crush that little bitch,” Art is having trouble dealing with the pressure to always come out on top. 

Flashback to a young Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) playing the junior doubles at the US Open. The best friends are in sync and playing with, and for, each other. That is until they see rising star Tashi and her intense balletic match with a bad-tempered opponent. For the first time, they become rivals trying to one up the other in a battle for Tashi’s attention. The boarding school rich kids see what tennis is for an up and comer like Tashi. It’s not just sponsorship or riding the high of serotonin and endorphin release – it’s a relationship and commitment to a life-changing beast. 

Tashi becomes a siren luring the two into a world where she is the locus for their repressed desires. She sizes them both up in seconds and pits them against each other by being the acceptable heterosexual avatar for Patrick’s bisexuality. She tells them tennis is about connecting and good tennis is about almost being in love with your opponent on the court (the Goldilocks dose of noradrenaline). Despite her comparative youth, there is nothing innocent about Tashi. She is already power playing. She is already in control. Tennis is life – because everything is about sizing up your opponent and using whatever means you can to unbalance them and force errors. Advantage, Tashi.

A visit to their shabby hotel room has Patrick and Art admitting their own sexual awakenings as boarding school roomies happened at the age of twelve where Patrick taught Art how to beat off. Art is embarrassed by the story, Patrick is proud. Tashi is immediately clued in as to how Patrick feels about Art. An almost threesome happens where Tashi makes out with them both simultaneously and then leans back when she has ensured Patrick and Art are passionately kissing each other. She has them hooked. Whoever wins the match the following day gets Tashi’s number and attention. Despite saying she’s not a “home wrecker” — she is. 

Initially, Patrick comes out on top. But in Tashi’s eyes he’s not a tennis player. His arrogance, swagger, and dilettantism (plus enormous downstairs package) make him an excellent lover. But his lack of understanding the true rules of the game means he’s excited about the wrong things. He went pro too early and isn’t winning. He jokes about Tashi and Art slumming it at Stanford playing college tennis. He’s turned on when Art begins to make active plays for Tashi (you’ll never forget Patrick chomping on Art’s churro). 

An argument ensues in which Art has managed to psych out his opponent even if Patrick finds it amusing. Tashi knows that she is beautiful – she has her own devoted fan club. Every match she plays is an event. Patrick chafes at her suggestions that he could be better. “I’m your equal, your peer,” he screams. But deep down he knows he’s not. It’s all bravado. He storms out of her room wearing her “I Told Ya” t-shirt. Later that afternoon, Tashi suffers a career ending accident on court. Art is the one to pick her up because he has been waiting in the wings to openly worship her. Patrick is the one who is forever expelled from their lives.

Tashi’s immense intelligence and acumen becomes affixed on building Art into a world class player. She’s savvy, she knows that now she can’t play; she can train and create a champion. But her simmering resentment for looking after her “little white boys” is barely concealed. Tashi and Art are a power couple – sponsorship darlings, but Justin Kuritzkes’ script reveals their competing obsessions. Art loves Tashi. Tashi loves tennis. She says she’d murder to have an injury recovery like his. “I’d kill an old lady or a child,” with her mother (Nada Despotovich) and her daughter, Lily (A.J. Lister) chattering and ignored in the background. You have to wonder how much of a joke it is.

Josh O’Connor’s down and out Patrick in the present is the essence of hubristic failure. He’s broke, he’s hungry, he’s a bed hopping player but he’s just using sex to ensure he doesn’t have to live in his car. When he realizes he has the opportunity to have a rematch with Art – the man he thinks stole his life, he truly starts playing the “game” again – both on and off the court. Tashi plays it too. The only person who seems to be mostly in the dark is Art until he sees on the court through his secret language with Patrick what has been happening behind his back.

Guadagnino’s direction along with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography and Marco Costa’s editing creates a masterpiece of erotic cinema. Zendaya is stunning but even with her lithe and beautiful body she’s not the main event; she’s the conduit. The main event is the mostly clothed “fucking” on the tennis court between Art and Patrick. The sex is there, and it is queer as hell. All the other sex in the film has been a tease – ended up in coitus interruptus or never shown reaching a climax. 

Challengers is a masterpiece of hyperbole. It’s hilarious, deliberately over the top, and forces people to get into its deliciously perverse groove. The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is employed to amp up the crowd, but also to camp up the film. Sticky short shorts, wet designer tennis shirts being discarded to reveal the male form, banana eating in one bite. Slow motion, tennis ball camera, Josh O’Connor in ruffled beast mode, psychosexual tension in spades and the final “money” shot bring Challengers to its orgasmic ending. Love is a blood sport and Guadagnino’s titillating tennis is game-set-match. Juicy, sticky, and horny as hell – Challengers is dynamite.

Grade: A+

Similar Articles