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Challengers: "backstabbing, scheming, smack-talking, dirty macking, adultery..."

Luca Guadagnino has never been one to shy away from attempting to turn his audience on. His previous features have served as sleek and contemporary looks at how human sexuality and desire combine and manifest, and ‘Challengers’, his latest, featuring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, does nothing to unsettle his track record. 


‘Challengers’ is about a constantly evolving love-triangle of sorts, following two besotted men and one sharp woman who is entirely aware of their devotion. The triangle is fascinatingly unsubtle about the sexual tensions that drive it, and one that allows Guadagnino’s reliable themes to thrive. The film opens and we are introduced to Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a glossy tennis star with endorsement deals and a lifestyle to boot, going through a rough patch. On the other side of the net, we’re introduced to Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a minor-league tennis player who is attempting to boost his professional rankings by playing at challenger tennis matches. Between them is Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), Art’s wife and coach, who looks increasingly disturbed by the tennis match unfolding in front of her. The film then takes us on a ricocheting play of their 15-year friendship, introducing a tangled history before whipping us back to the present day. 


A teenage relationship between Tashi and Patrick develops into an adult marriage between Tashi and Art, complete with a daughter. The flashbacks and flash-forwards serve as a deeper look into how this all unfolded, with sharp dialogue and sexually charged scenes. It allows the cinema-goer to do what every cinema-goer loves to do. It gives you just enough time to pick who to hate and who to root for, with the added reassurance that your answers don’t have to be locked in. It’s great – the film invites fickleness where others deny it, by building up perhaps the most addictively fickle trio we’ve seen in cinema for a while.


Both Art and Patrick are so clearly infatuated with Zendaya’s Tashi – her skill, her beauty and her nonchalance all the more obvious reasons as to why. She’s the default main character with a killer instinct, and it’s the primary driver of the plot - yet little is actually revealed of Tashi and the reasons she is the way she is. The film is very rooted in the present – there are minimal nods to their upbringing, their pasts, their reasons for their wiring. Instead we’re left with tells, small nuggets to help us build up these characters in our minds. A comment about Tashi’s parents not being able to afford private school, her mother’s present-day role as nothing more than a babysitter, Patrick’s eagerness to go pro and Art’s assuredness about Stanford. All of these allow the viewer to build up their profile, cast judgement and afford grace – sometimes simultaneously. 


One of the initial trailers for the film had Rihanna’s “S&M” as the soundtrack, and the scenes selected and shown prior to its 2024 release, would suggest that the film is effectively, sex-crazed. And yes, it’s a big part of it. Tashi’s fierceness aligns with Patrick’s rogue character, and so their mixture of fire and fire allows for sexual compatibility. Her relationship with Mike Faist’s Art allows for more of a submission-domination dynamic, one that likely serves Tashi, and allows for her to mould him both as a tennis client and a husband. And then there’s the relationship between Patrick and Art themselves, one that is charged from before they even meet Tashi, and culminates in a heated sauna scene. (Excuse the pun). 


Guadagnino’s unique direction style means that you’re lobbed (again, excuse the pun) back and forth, and that means that you inadvertently experience what is effectively a cinematic rally. Early on in the film, Tashi asserts to both Patrick and Art that tennis isn’t just a sport – “it’s an art”. This intentionally transparent nod to the film’s plot, is also somewhat of a nod to the film’s style. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the film’s cinematographer, uses close-up, head-on shots when we’re shown Tashi playing, emphasising the power in her strikes and the concentration that guides her play. When Art and Patrick are playing, we’re all over the place, with the viewer getting a 360 look at their style of the play. Even the shots make it clear to us – Tashi is in control when she’s in the picture; Art and Patrick are not. 


‘Challengers’ is a sports movie covered with multiple veils, encouraging the viewer to peel back the layers until they’re left with a film that absolutely wasn’t what they expected to watch. Layers include backstabbing, scheming, smack-talking, dirty macking, adultery and more. So, rest assured, you will leave feeling satisfied, with a lasting, charged exhilaration that will fuel your cinema conversations for days. 


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