(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O'Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is One of the Most Salacious Movies of the Year

Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is one of the most salacious movies of the year – turning the sport of tennis into a sexy thrill ride. The director’s recent filmography has had him channel the most excessive and perverse desire of the physical, and he is not letting up. Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria, Bones and All – the violent, the predatory, and the perverse are portrayed with an eye for aesthetic beauty. Human beings have carnal desires, and Luca’s love as an aesthete does not discriminate for better or worse.

As if hitting an ace in the square, Guadanino has the ball entirely in his court. Without delving into too much metaphor, it’s not hyperbole to say that the audience becomes the ball. The triple threat of Josh O’Connor (Patrick Zweig), Zendaya (Tashi Duncan) and Mike Faist (Art Donaldson) become the conduit of pure, unadulterated energy – bouncing the viewer back and forth off their highly strung rackets. Through a non-linear form, this love triangle is so rooted in ambition, power and impulse that the opening credits can’t even play out before editor Marco Costa drops us into the film ‘in medias res’.

The plot intentionally tells the story non-chronologically, unwrapping layers of these three individuals by jumping between periods—each meticulously adding a new coating to this trio of magnetically repulsive chemistry. The centre of the drama revolves around Art and Patrick, two challengers who share a colourful history of queer repression and masculine rivalry. When reuniting in 2019 to compete against each other in a New Rochelle country club competition, their passions, repressions and love converge at the crossroads of the alluring yet mercilessly driven Tashi.

Tashi has had a twisted love affair with these two men for thirteen years. In the present timeline of 2019, Art is married to Tashi but is on a downward trend of success; the cracks in their sponsored artificial facade are showing. Patrick is living in his car, desperately hungry, and intent on settling a decade-long score. Tashi has also suffered a career-ending injury in the past. The only way to keep her ambitions for the sport alive is through propping up her husband as manager and coach.

Tennis is her whole world. In her eyes, a successful game should be an act of reciprocal love. She admits she’d kill a lady or child to recover from her injury. Her mother and daughter Lily (A.J. Lister) are also in the film but very tactfully sidelined – all that matters to Tashi is a match of outstanding tennis.

The audience soon learns how these three became inextricably linked thirteen years earlier. Art and Patrick have been boarding school roommates since the age of twelve. They are playing junior doubles at the US Open and egging on each other’s sexual impulses. Here, they spot Tashi, instantly aggrandise her as the most successful and attractive player they’ve seen and drool on site. They fight for a date with her, but Tashi suspects they are already a couple – she’s smarter than them.

Through making them compete on the court for her affection, Patrick initially wins out as her doomed lover. This begins a love affair between pairs: between Tashi and the boys and between the boys themselves. Tashi is the catalyst for the eponymous challenger’s competition and sexual suspense – if they are the main event, she is the stadium.

Tennis is a relationship, one that requires stamina, dedication, and, in the case of this erotic sports drama – lust. There are images of sweat glands that drip in hyperbolic slow motion, bath towels an inch away from slipping off the waist, and dangerously short sports shorts constantly being adjusted at the crotch. Some legs glide, crack, and extend, as well as gale-force winds that shake around hair, bodily fluid, and desire. One can imagine the smell of musk and pheromones dancing around the nose in a single frame.

So much of the world of sport involves homoerotic passion, forever masked by the machismo of heteronormativity. Repression can mould men into who they are not, struggling to see desire right before them. Tashi Duncan is neither a hero nor a villain – she wants to see her “little white boys” reach their full potential. Between bananas cheekily eaten in the foreground of another’s crotch, other foods consumed with phallic excess, and conversations held in intimate proximity, the queer tension in Challengers masterfully bleeds through the frame.

The poster alone should indicate how attractive and captivating all three performances are. Josh O’Connor plays the character with a believable egotism, playing a frazzled bisexual who lacks guidance and stability. Mike Faist is also brilliant at playing a conflicted and repressed athlete who lags at seeing the final scoreboard. Zendaya is giving a performance of a lifetime, serving up a character who will stop at nothing to achieve her ambitions. A cross sits on her neck constantly, but the boys prove her faith couldn’t be more pointed toward the religion of tennis.

The promotional material of the film has subverted audiences into believing all the sexual action occurs on a bed between the three players. The genius of Justin Kuritzkes’ script is that what happens in the bedroom is foreplay; the sport itself becomes the outlet of desire. The sex itself is neither very present nor given such visual steaminess or climax as the actual sport. There is such an erotic yearning going through the structure of the narrative. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s provocative cinematography ensures that direct sexual imagery would become almost benign – the euphoria is on the court.

The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross amplifies the proceedings with impressive techno-club beats. The cloudless blue sky in Challengers can make the audience feel they are watching a competition broadcast on their televisions—the exhaustion, scoring, scarring, and commitment to the match are all ever-present. Still, the music couldn’t make you feel more like you’re in the basement of a rave going through the loud and endless night. It excites the kinetic camerawork, creating a hilarious display of sensual passion. It is a film willing to strap a camera to a tennis ball – laughing at how over-the-top Challengers can become is all part of the charm.

Hollywood has continually strayed further and further from the genre of the sex comedy. There is almost an aversion from certain parties to wanting sex in the movies. In comes Challengers, a film that doesn’t lull you into submission – it riles you into a state of craze with its hyper-visceral and erotic tone. It will be a surprise if anyone walks out of the cinema without an uncontrollable sensation of blood-pumping arousal.

With an ending reminiscent of Damien Chazelle’s equally exhaustive Whiplash, Challengers is a highly camp, hyper-queer exploration of decades-long rivalry. A brilliantly entertaining romp full of sweat, bodily arousal, and cheeky eroticism. Game, set, and match for sexy, frisky cinema.

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Writer: Justin Kuritzkes

Cast: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist

Producers: Luca Guadagnino, Rachel O’Connor, Amy Pascal, Zendaya 

Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Editing: Marco Costa 

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Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

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