‘Challengers’ is the erotic sports movie of the century

In “Challengers,” Luca Guadagnino takes the competitive nature of tennis and charges it with eroticism. Every swing of the racket is punctuated with heavy grunts and every drip of sweat feels intimate. Operating within the rules of tennis, the main three characters of “Challengers,” pent up with passion and sexual tension, express everything they need to on the court. The film revolves around the tumultuous relationship between three tennis players over thirteen years. Tashi (Zendaya) is married to Art (Mike Faist), a talented pro on a losing streak. To boost his confidence, Tashi signs Art up to compete in a challenger (a low-end tournament), where he faces off against his former best friend Patrick (Josh O’Connor) — who also happens to be Tashi’s ex-boyfriend. 

It’s a premise that doesn’t sound all that different from countless other films revolving around love triangles, but Guadagnino is the factor that makes “Challengers” something special. With long close-up shots, inventive camerawork and a blaring techno score, “Challengers” focuses on the thrill and rush of competition and thrives on the understanding that hate and jealousy can be sexy. It’s fitting that there are no sex scenes within “Challengers” — the tennis is the action. What goes unsaid in the relentless back-and-forth between the characters is found within the expletives released when another scores, the restless energy in the breaks between the sets and the viciousness unleashed satisfyingly in the smashing of a racket. 

If tennis is a way of existing within the world of “Challengers,” then Tashi has no way of living following the injury that kills her tennis career. Zendaya infuses Tashi with a quiet sense of frustration and loneliness that comes from losing the one thing that she dedicated her life to. All of Tashi’s desires are hopelessly mixed into tennis, and she does everything she can to keep that connection to the sport alive via manipulation. Yet, she’s not unsympathetic; as the force that connects everything in “Challengers” together, she goes after everything she wants with such fierce determination. It’s hard not to root for her as she channels her frustrations into her star player husband, Art, attempting to vicariously live the career she was meant to have through him. But Art, despite his success, was never obsessive about tennis the same way Tashi still is, and their marriage suffers as a result. Obsession and possession are intertwined, resulting in tension so palpable you can almost taste it.

Speaking of taste, “Challengers” use of food as phallic imagery cannot be understated. Bananas, hot dogs and churros are chewed up with palpable joy and abandon. Food is a pleasure, and both Patrick and Art revel in it. And in their later years, it’s something that has to be abandoned. Art guzzles down nutritional supplements of varying tastes — a sacrifice made to keep his body a temple, a sacrifice to the games he’s spent his life playing. It’s not until Patrick and Art’s final tennis match where Patrick cheekily eats a banana while staring straight at Art that food becomes enjoyable again. Patrick and Art’s friendship, created by years of shared adolescent experiences and punctuated with intense homoerotic energy, seems to be at its worst as their mutual attraction to Tashi comes between them. But on the court, they energize and infuriate each other in a way only they could do for each other through tennis. 

“Challengers” isn’t interested in giving its characters or the audience a sense of relief from the sexual tension of the movie. As the film’s climax, filled with some of the best and most inventive methods of filming tennis ever put to screen, draws to an end, there is only the sense of frustration over the lack of release; the same lack that all three main characters feel throughout the film. In that sense, “Challengers” will leave you both disoriented and empathic with how it feels to want another person so intensely and not have them. 

Verdict: “Challengers” is a delightfully steamy movie that takes a sport about an intense game between two people and makes it erotic. Seeing it in theaters is a wildly sensory experience. 

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