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A sexy love game — electric Challengers aces style and startling role reversal

A sexy love game — electric Challengers aces style and startling role reversal
From left: Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino. (Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Challengers takes a love triangle and upends the usual gender power balance and its depiction in eye-opening, impactful ways.

While movies set against the backdrop of professional tennis are not an everyday occurrence, the setting has consistently been used to explore rivalries and romantic tension. Challengers, from Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, ticks those boxes too, but at the same time it goes provocatively and stylishly off script.

It is convenient to describe Challengers as a love triangle – between former doubles teammates Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), and tennis prodigy turned coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) – but that does the film a disservice; there is a lot packed into its two hours and 11 minutes.

It starts with Challengers’ narrative structure, which is essentially a rally between the film’s 2019 present, with Art and Patrick facing off in the final of a small-scale Challenger tournament, and key events during the previous 13 years which altered the course of the trio’s lives. 

In short, while fiery Patrick and ferociously driven Tashi were a couple as teenagers, it’s the pairing of Tashi and milder Art that has led to the cusp of a Career Grand Slam for the latter, while Patrick sleeps in his car and scavenges at the bottom on the professional circuit. The film bounces back and forth on the timeline in a dizzying but not displeasing way, mirroring the first-person point-of-view shots that pepper Art and Patrick’s high-stakes match.

Mike Faist stars as Art and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in Challengers. (Photo: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Challengers

Mike Faist stars as Art and Zendaya as Tashi in Challengers. (Photo: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Challengers is more than visual flair draped over a traditional story. It upends the usual gender power balance and its depiction by placing Tashi in the driving seat.

Patrick and Art’s actions are shaped by her will and wants, with the pair demonstrating less agency – unusual for male characters. At the same time, Guadagnino consistently subjects Patrick and Art, as well as their other opponents, to the male gaze normally reserved for onscreen depictions of women. The objectifying role reversal is both startling and eye-opening, especially in the context of professional tennis, which has long been in the spotlight for its double standards and inequalities between the sexes.

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Coming across as live-action Western shōnen-ai at times, Challengers dials up the homoeroticism. In fact, the film is heavily erotic in general. While never sexually explicit (there is male nudity), it is very sexy. The movie centres on young ravenous athletes in peak physical condition, and Guadagnino never tries to downplay that fact. 

Often shot in extreme close-ups, Challengers is emotionally powered by its trio of stunning, often sweaty, stars, who get to pair their charisma with interesting character portrayals. No real surprise, but Zendaya is electric, captivating even as she makes no attempt to smooth Tashi’s sharpest edges.

Josh O’Connor in Challengers. (Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Adding to Challengers’ sexually charged energy is a night club-esque score from Oscar winners (for The Social Network and Soul) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

While their mix of synth electronica and dreamy piano is perhaps used a few times too many, there’s no denying how the music transforms the tennis scenes. A quiet, territorially constrained sport weighed down by decorum rules becomes something taut and sensual every time Reznor and Ross’s beat kicks in.

Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in Challengers. (Photo: Niko Tavernise / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Still on matters of audio, that is the one noticeable place where Challengers falters technically.

At times, the sound balance is off, making it hard to hear dialogue exchanges. But it’s an otherwise minor niggle in a film that is raunchy without ever sacrificing its artistic ambitions. One can imagine that Zendaya’s Tashi yelling “Come on!” on the court is actually a challenge to other filmmakers to be as bold in their creation of entertainment for adult audiences. Bring it! DM

Challengers is in South African cinemas now, having been released locally on 2 May.

Challengers. Image: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

This article was first published on PFangirl.

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