Credit: Niko Tavernise/MGM
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Spotlight

Challengers — Luca Guadagnino

April 22, 2024

The lynchpin scene in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, an overheated yet deliciously entertaining sports drama, arrives around 30 minutes into the film and finds our three main characters on the precipice of all sleeping together. The sequence takes place in the mid-2000s — the film jumps around in time over the course of 13 years — when teenaged pro-am tennis players and friends since childhood Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) have successfully talked 18-year-old tennis phenom Tashi Duncan (ascendant superstar Zendaya) back to their dingy hotel room with no real plan for what’s supposed to happen next. The two men have just trophied at a doubles tournament, but neither man is terribly interested in tennis at the moment; Patrick has even volunteered to throw the men’s singles final where he’s set to face off with Art the next day, in a mix of roguish indifference and pity on someone deemed lesser. Although technically the youngest and most inexperienced of the three, Tashi is steering the ship: seductively nursing a beer bottle and posing provocative questions to the men about their sexual history — raising the specter of whether they might have been more than strictly bunkmates at tennis camp — all while her two prospective suitors grin at her like the large, goofy children they are. It would be unfair to give away exactly what happens next, only to say that nothing is consummated — this will not be the only time the film works the viewer into a fervor only to sadistically splash cold water in our collective faces — and that Tashi departs with a promise that whoever between them wins the next day’s match will receive her cell phone number as their prize. Needless to say, Patrick promptly rescinds his offer to take a dive.

Challengers is technically about tennis, but really it’s about the aphrodisiac of excellence. Are Patrick and Art smitten with Tashi because she looks like Zendaya or because of her assured, almost animalistic approach to competition? Does Tashi start dating Patrick because he, in fact, won that next day’s match or because he radiates swagger and she recognizes a sort of weakness and self-doubt in Art that can be as unattractive in an athlete as it is in a sexual partner? When Tashi and Patrick split up following her suffering a career-ending injury on the court, and in her desperation and sadness she turns to Art for comfort, is it because he’s dependable and considerate or because she recognizes that he’s doggedly worked to improve his game, turning himself into a formidable force on the men’s tour? And in the near-present where most of the film is set (the main narrative takes place in 2019, perhaps to give the pandemic a wide berth), is Tashi’s renewed interest in Patrick, now a professional joke living out of his car as he can’t afford a hotel room, because she can’t resist his impish charms or because Art, now her husband and the father to their young child, is contemplating retirement at 31, denying her the vicarious rush of victory in sport?

The film is structured around an improbable finals match between Patrick and Art at a lowly challenger event — an insert shot reveals the prize for first place is a mere $7,200 — where the disparity in talent between the two men is offset by a psychological advantage. Art, we learn, is just one U.S. Open title away from a career Grand Slam, but said career is in steady decline with the athlete having apparently lost his killer edge — that he’s content to eat cheeseburgers and be in a family with Tashi seems to quietly disgust her — and booked the challenger as a tune-up to help get his confidence up. Patrick’s once-promising career has so hit the skids that he hungrily eyes the meager participation fee as a lifeline — when he’s not sleeping in his car, Patrick uses Tinder as a means of lining up a bed for the night, and he’s not particular about his conquests’ gender. But Patrick has always had Art’s number both on and off the court, and as the two men advance through the bracket in a collision course that will either break Art’s spirit or push Patrick further into the gutter, Tashi isn’t above manipulating the situation to arrive at her preferred outcome, although it remains somewhat muddy what that actually is.

There’s a lurid, nonsensical quality to Challengers; it does the experience of watching the film a disservice to dwell on the film’s internal logic or parsing the agendas of its characters as it’s aiming to hit the viewer in the gut (or perhaps somewhere further down on the body). In that respect, the film recalls last year’s critical pariah/TikTok sensation Saltburn, which similarly is a stylish, polyamorous account of confusing motivations and bisexuals pretending to be poor partially set in 2006 (Challengers isn’t especially interested in class, however, nor was it made by the scion of a jewelry empire, so it’s likely to be spared most of the more withering slings and arrows). Guadagnino remains a difficult director to pin down — if there’s a consistent thematic throughline in projects as diverse as Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria, and Bones and All, this critic has yet to detect it — but the filmmaker knows of sensuality and bodies in motion and isn’t encumbered by stodgy notions of good taste, which makes him the perfect filmmaker for this subject matter. He busts apart conventions of what it means to shoot a tennis match and stages these sequences like a contact sport or a sex scene, which is no small feat considering the players never touch each other. Guadagnino employs extreme close-ups and films in an ultra-fast frame rate so we see every muscle and tendon ripple under strain, every bead of sweat falling from a brow a torrential downpour, every overemphatic grunt a distorted maw of rage and release. We ping-pong around the court at breakneck speeds, with the camera assuming the POV of the ball, all edited at a blistering clip and set to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ EDM-inspired score (Challengers‘ music may be destined to outlive the film as the throbbing beat at international dance clubs for decades to come). Art and Patrick are playing for pride, a modest cash prize, and even Tashi’s heart, but in the parlance of the film, they’re really playing because they are their truest, best selves in the heat of combat. That’s the sort of sentiment that sounds absurd unless one’s in the throes of rapturous subjective filmmaking, and on that front, the film delivers in spades.

As her current and past (although in a film like this, that’s a term used loosely) lovers compete for her affection, Tashi’s head is turned from man to man as she follows the path of the ball, which is also an apt visual metaphor for her fickle allegiances. The question of “what does Tashi want?” underlies Challengers, and a less-than-charitable read of the film is that she’s simply thirsty for drama — the character is curiously unconcerned with the implications on her shared business empire with Art or that they share a small child together. When a dead-eyed Tashi tells Art that she’ll leave him if he doesn’t beat Patrick, are we to interpret this as a lie to motivate him or an acknowledgment that she can’t abide being married to a loser, can the film even tell the difference between the two? Tashi is by far the most fully realized character here — one of the nice touches of Challengers is that neither Patrick nor Art feel complete as individuals but become a compelling whole when O’Connor and Faist share scenes together — but she remains a maddening, inscrutable individual who seems to be getting off on playing the two men against each other. It should be noted that Challengers was written by playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, who lately is best known for being the husband of Past Lives writer-director Celine Song. In light of that film, which took a decidedly less confrontational, no-fault approach to depicting a love triangle, there’s a certain perverse joy in viewing Challengers as an arsenic-tipped response about a woman cruelly yanking on the strings of her husband and a man from her past who only achieve self-actualization by beating one another. It’s like a relationship counseling session splayed out for paying audiences to gawk at. Of course, that would be tawdry and in poor taste to speculate about such things, but if ever there were an appropriate venue for such a thing, it’s Challengers.

DIRECTOR: Luca Guadagnino;  CAST: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, A.J. Lister;  DISTRIBUTOR: MGM;  IN THEATERS: April 26;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 11 min.