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24 April 2024

Luca Guadagnino’s wryly horny tennis film Challengers

In this playful depiction of a toxic ménage-à-trois between players, the sport is a stand-in for sex.

By Simran Hans

In a hotel lobby, tennis player Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) is trying to flirt his way into a free room. As he leans across the counter, smirk angled in the direction of the receptionist, the camera pays special attention to the strain of O’Connor’s tight blue shorts. As if it wasn’t obvious what director Luca Guadagnino was doing, the couple in the queue behind expresses similar, smutty appreciation. Challengers, his new film, is delirious with desire, to the point of being goofy. Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name) is a sensualist, whose films ache with longing. What’s immediately different here is the energy: still horny, but wry, and less sincere. Working from a script by Justin Kuritzkes, the film, about a toxic ménage-à-trois between three tennis players, feels like a romcom, though Kuritzkes plots it as a thriller.

Tashi Duncan (an all-powerful Zendaya) has noticed that her husband, tennis pro Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, who was the best thing about Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake) has lost his confidence. As both his partner and coach, she arranges for him to play a low-stakes Challengers tournament in upstate New York. It should be an easy win. Only, Art’s opponent is his former best friend Patrick, who he’s never managed to beat. He’s also Tashi’s ex. The film opens mid-match, with Tashi coolly watching the men sweat from behind giant sunglasses. Art and Patrick find themselves watching her: it’s clear what they’re playing for.

Tennis is used as a pretext for expressive grunting. It is context for competitive one-upmanship (and thigh-skimming shorts). It is also subtext – a stand-in for sex, in a 15-rated movie. According to Tashi, tennis is “a relationship”. Kuritzkes punctuates the game with a series of non-linear flashbacks that begin 13 years prior, when Art and Patrick were gawky teenagers. It’s through these flashbacks that we learn where each player’s pressure points are. Guadagnino understands rhythm, knowing when to slow down and speed up, while the narrative’s elaborate, volleying structure means the advantage keeps shifting. The tension (sexual and otherwise) is emphasised by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s throbbing club score.

Whereas Guadagnino’s last film, the Timothée Chalamet-starring cannibal romance Bones and All (2022), cast a loving eye over dirt roads and ramshackle houses in the neglected Midwest, here, his lust is for a very different America, rooted in old-money country clubs and wrapped in Ivy League college sweatshirts.

The specificity of Guadagnino’s reference points is fetishistic: a ratty grey T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I Told Ya” is worn by both Tashi and Patrick, a replica of the one made famous by the king of coastal prep, JFK Jr, back in the 1990s. A steamy kiss takes place in the parking lot of an Applebee’s, a casual chain restaurant whose Cincinnati outpost was so popular with visiting tennis players that the New York Times wrote an article about it. The tennis is erotic, but there’s something equally voyeuristic about seeing these gorgeous actors in anonymous, suburban locales.

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Tashi is light on her feet with a forceful backhand, and a long sleek braid that trails her like a whip. That she gets off on power is immediately clear, and when the trio meet as 18-year-olds at her party, Patrick and Art are in awe. While Patrick is smugly aware of his sexual magnetism, Art holds back, playing the gentleman.

Guadagnino often holds back too, preferring to tease the audience rather than gratify them. Glances are charged with longing, a stool is pulled dangerously close, and a phallic, cinnamon-sugar churro is eaten in a few hungry bites – details that are decidedly more suggestive than the glistening bodies on show. Early on in their relationship, the boys invite Tashi back to their shared hotel room, though they don’t expect her to actually come. When she arrives, Tashi orchestrates the proceedings with a knowing, feline smirk. It’s hot and comical: “I don’t want to be a home-wrecker,” she shrugs. Everyone is left panting: the film treats the fantasy of a threesome as sexier than the act itself.

It’s a brilliant showcase for Zendaya, whose on-screen magnetism has rarely been channelled so effectively. When a wince-inducing knee injury puts Tashi out of action, her hot rage turns to ice. Through stillness and poise, she conveys frustration, fury and arrogance, with a healthy dose of self-loathing. She craves tenderness, but still wants to be challenged. Thankfully, Zendaya’s co-stars match her: O’Connor’s wolfish grin is deployed to particularly devastating effect, while Faist makes himself a victim of it.

“Challengers” is in cinemas now

[See also: The Book of Clarence is a bombastic biblical satire]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger