Challengers – Dir: Luca Guadagnino (Film Review)

Challengers is another stunningly sensual addition to Luca Guadagnino’s remarkable oeuvre. The 13th Floor’s Thomas Giblin elaborates.

Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist

Tennis is remarkably dull. So is golf, Formula 1 and all those other sports reserved for brats born with silver spoons in their mouths. It’s fitting that Challengers, directed by Luca Guadagnino, who has stated that he finds tennis “boring”, has teased out its exhilarating eroticism. Two men, with beads of sweat dripping down their toned muscular bodies, are hunched over their rackets. They stand across from each other, desperate to touch. An onlooker’s gaze anxiously twitches from side to side as a tennis ball is savagely swatted. Jealousy is flowing in all directions. Guadagnino has transformed the stuffy sport into a vehicle for a thrilling psychosexual sports drama.

Superstar Zendaya is Tashi Duncan, a cut-throat former tennis prodigy turned coach after a career-ending injury. She coaches Art Donaldson, her partner. Played by the measured Mike Faist, Donaldson is an object in which her obsessions are experienced vicariously. Josh O’Connor is compelling as Patrick Zweig, a charming piece-of-shit who wasted his on-court potential. The trio meet again after years apart where Challengers begins: at a low-level tennis championship match. Donaldson and Zweig were best friends until their obsession with the alluring Duncan tears them apart. This dizzying demi-decade love triangle will soon unravel as a caffeinated aphrodisiac.

In the heat of the match, with clever but gimmicky transitions, we trace this love triangle from a meet-cute and a sensual three-way makeout session to a climactic embrace. Challengers is animalistic with repressed lust, yet it doesn’t feature a single sex scene. Zendaya is underwhelming as the no.1 seed, but O’Connor is a wildcard whose old Hollywood charm and sexual magnetism see him outshine his co-stars. If O’Connor wasn’t a star with God’s Own Country and The Crown, Challengers should be the film that propels his career to new heights.

Set to Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor‘s pulsating techno beats, Challengers’ score is as thrilling as each brutal rally. The film’s electrifying soundtrack builds to a stunning maximalist crescendo. Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom go wild with POV tennis ball shots, sumptuous close-ups and an under-the-court angle. The two may have gotten carried away a little, but it’s refreshing to see a mid-budget studio film with a Hollywood A-lister be so daring.

Challengers may not be a grand slam, but it is a titillating must-watch, even for those who turn their noses up at sports films.

Thomas Giblin

Challengers is in cinemas now. Click here for tickets and showtimes.