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Challengers Serves Up an Intoxicating Love Triangle

Luca Guadagnino’s sexy tennis thriller volleys us around a heated romance on and off the court.

Directed by Luca Gudagnino

by Prabhjot Bains

In a late scene during Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, tennis is described as a “game about winning the points that matter.” It’s a statement that taps into the exacting nature of his sexy sports thriller, poking and prodding at the right emotions, at the right times, to completely seduce us into its wonderfully overwrought tale.

Armed with a sweltering love triangle for the ages, Challengers repeatedly places the audience on a knife’s edge of sexual tension and cutthroat gamesmanship, forcing us to teeter on the half-court net until it explodes with pure, intoxicating catharsis. In effect we come to embody the ball, thwacked not only around the court, but into each moment of betrayal and passion with furious energy.

At the heart of Challengers’ electric three-hander lies Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), an athletic prodigy whose tennis career is cut tragically short after an injury – yet her relationship with the sport doesn’t end there. Instead, it morphs into something craftier and more scintillating. Years later, in 2019, she enters her husband Art (Mike Faist) into a “challengers” tournament to get his confidence back after a losing streak. In the finals, they find their opponent to be none other than Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), Tashi’s ex-boyfriend and Art’s estranged best friend.

It’s here where Challengers’ time-shifting brilliance takes centre stage, navigating the toxic, power-shifting history looming over each set of a pivotal match. In any other film, such reliance on flashbacks to years, and even decades prior, would have gutted the momentum it hoped to build. But in Gudagnino’s hands, they add fuel to its seductive engine. Each trip between the past and the present is precise in its design, seamlessly exploring the stakes, relationships, and schemes within each sweat-filled serve and volley. Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes weave a labyrinthine patchwork that becomes all too easy to get lost in, rendering us happy victims of each character’s machinations. As a result, many of Challengers’ most exhilarating moments occur outside the tennis court.

After Call Me By Your Name and Bones and All, it’s become clear that no other filmmaker captures sex, sweat, and summer quite like Guadagnino – even when he’s not explicitly depicting it. Challengers emanates an air of passion, intrigue, and energy so palpable within its sun-soaked locales that it practically wafts off the screen. It’s a product of Gudagnino’s enveloping lens. When it’s not frenetically criss-crossing between each heated exchange and emotional maneuver, it’s relishing in unbroken, viscerally staged tableaux, especially in a scene where our three protagonists share a hotel room.

During these sequences, Challengers is possibly louder in its moments of silence, daring us to peer into the psyche of characters it constantly restricts access to — especially when one holds a secret advantage over the other. Yet, when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s thumping, relentless techno score enters the fray, there’s no mistaking Challengers for an understated experience, serving up pleasures both delightfully goofy and animalistic.

All three lead actors exemplify movie stardom. Zendaya’s Tashi radiates an undecipherable but formidable aura, manifesting as an apex predator who knows exactly what string to pull. She’s both the femme and the fatale. Faist is also excellent as the nice guy who may or may not survive the emotional gauntlet the others will put him through. But it’s O’Connor who steals the show, whose smirking wit keeps the audience on their toes. He’s somehow both disheveled and unbelievably handsome, lending him a dangerous quality that’s hard to shake.

Challengers resurrects the erotic thriller by being both artful and outlandish in its cinematic design. Despite wanting to provoke audiences into a meaningful dialogue about its characters, it remains steadfast in its main objective to be thoroughly entertaining. Tashi claims “tennis is a relationship,” and Guadagnino makes it an open one that keeps on winning.