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'Challengers': Guadagnino's Stroke of Erotic Genius

Compress. Repress. Impress. The final track on the thumping soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino’s titillating sports drama, Challengers, says everything you need to know about the movie. Challengers is a film about the push and pull of desire, what’s left unsaid, and how none of it matters when you leave it all out there on the tennis court. 

The sweatiest and most scandalous movie of the season doesn’t feature a single sex scene – unless you count the explosive nature of every tennis match as sex. Which is what it is. Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist headline this radiant love triangle wherein all corners touch. In present day, Zendaya and Faist’s Tashi Donaldson (née Duncan, one of the great character names) and Art Donaldson are married and at the top of the world as he inches toward a Grand Slam despite being on a downslope. To inspire him, she signs him up as a wild card for a Challenger in New Rochelle, NY. Also competing at this challenger is O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig, her ex-boyfriend and his ex-best friend, among other things. Then the games begin.

Guadagnino’s filmography is lush with lust and desire. These impulses and his obsessions with them are his bread and butter. Since Bones and All, he’s expanded beyond European vistas into the consumerist culture of America. Challengers is about consumption –  of brands and sponsorships and pop music – but also of each other. Nearly every scene features someone gnawing away at some snack, mind entirely elsewhere, with eyes locked on that very same elsewhere.

The lustfulness that Guadagnino draws out of every script he works with is taken to the extreme here. His and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera worship at the altar of the body and the courts alike. Faces are shot in close-up with a reverence akin to Jonathan Demme, intentionally hinted at by a Something Wild poster in the background of the movie’s most romantic Applebee’s-set scene. The raw athleticism of the actors is likewise shot like sex. Every sequence is backed by a visceral, pulse-pounding score to complement the hyper-edited kineticism of their feats. Volleys back and forth don’t feel like tennis, but, as Art says, “an entirely different game.” The closest thing to sexual release is Tashi’s guttural scream, “Come On!”

As for that score, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's thundering club set perfectly befits a film in which tennis is the only release. Those scenes in between the games are about what’s left in the air between people who might not know how to talk but know exactly how to move. The trio can read each other like nobody else can.

Guadagnino, a preternaturally sensual director, lingers on legs and beads of sweat as if they’re the most important thing in the world. They usually are. This particular trio of actors also know exactly how to work this dynamic. Zendaya and Faist’s backgrounds in dance help them control their balletic form on the court, while O’Connor’s more brutish style matches his brash gametime demeanor. Even as the film jumps between decades with reckless abandon – nearly every scene is a new day or year – the trio has their body language on a dial. Their transition from a gangly powerful youth to sturdy yet rigid adulthood is seamless.

What makes Challengers refreshing isn’t its craft, though it is impressive. What most makes Challengers feel like a tennis ball to the chest is its gleeful eroticism. Again, there is no sex in this movie, but it is the sexiest mainstream American release in ages (thank god for Italians). The dialogue embodies the contrasted desires of all three parties. Art’s desire for anything beyond success in tennis is buried far too deep for him to reach, so instead he seeks approval from Tashi and Patrick, whose ideas of desire are more formed. Patrick is goal-oriented, but maybe too wild to know it. Tashi is the balancing scale. Her desires were fully formed from the get-go.

Writer Justin Kuritzkes drops details like breadcrumbs, some of which demonstrate that she doesn’t come from the same easy money as the boys. Her ambition is understandably more raw. She is as steadfast as they come, and once she can’t put that energy toward the sport herself, she channels it into those around her. Beyond knowing what she needs from each of them, Tashi has her boys dead to rights on every impulse they have and knows exactly what they want from each other. The joy of this movie is how much Guadagnino embraces their journey. 

Tashi calls Art and Patrick fire and ice early in the film, an on-court nickname they seem to have embraced. She asks who’s who. Patrick asks, “What do you think?” The film never explicitly says who’s who. Patrick may seem like fire, given his brazen aggression and the assured cockiness he plays with. Art, on the other hand, stays colder on the court and is more reserved in his verbal and physical language. But who’s who – does it matter? Tashi doesn’t care, she already knows. All she wants is for them to meet again. For them to melt into a dripping mess of sweat and tears, and each other. She wants to see some good fucking tennis.



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