Challengers review

Challengers takes a Pinterest-board approach to ’70s erotica, tennis athleticism and BDE

4 out of 5 stars

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film Challengers encourages critics to use superlatives — the movie is breezy, sexy and visceral. Everyone is beautiful. Tennis is sex; tennis is life. Critics with a sense of whimsy and a talent for wordplay are serving up their best puns, plays and rhymes to do with balls, games and courts. Guadagigno, whose films often indulge in elegance, pleasure and melodrama, invites all levels of hyperbole and grandiosity. Challengers feels like a throwback to an era where movie stars reigned, consumerism ruled and fucking was of the utmost importance. It’s a movie that feels like a Pinterest board — a collection of costumes, brands and gestures towards a cool-girl menage-à-trois sports fantasy. It’s as much an exercise in formal playfulness as it is a fun, sexy summer movie. 

The film begins at a “challenger” qualifying event, where the ranked Art (Mike Faist) faces off against long-time rival and former best friend Patrick (Josh O’Connor). The game was all but set up by Tashi (Zendaya), a former tennis pro whose career was derailed by an injury. She’s married to Art but used to date Patrick. She says she signed up her husband for a qualifying event to boost his confidence. Challengers unfolds over decades, beginning as the two boys meet their tennis idol back in 2006. It also unfolds during a single game, intercut with breakneck and impulsive interruptions that draw out the titular match through the entire running time. 

It’s a movie that’s quite plainly about sex, and nearly every interaction between the three main characters feels underlined by overflowing desire. While Zendaya becomes the shared object of interest, the movie pays even more attention to the eroticism of the male body. The camera frequently cuts to bulging thighs, pulsing chests and hardening cocks. It’s a movie, in part, about the power (as well as the limits) of a big dick. Rarely has a film featured a character whose BDE has been so literal, so central and so complex. While our protagonists remain largely under wraps, there’s no confusing the subtext of their rivalry. One of the boys has a boyfriend dick, the other, in his own words, is not the marrying type — “that’s not what he’s for.” 

Josh O’Connor, Zendaya and Mike Faist in Challengers

There’s something so decadent in a film so obsessed with the beauty and sex lives of its characters. It feels extremely ’60s and ’70s, and unsurprisingly, the 20th-century heyday for the eroticism of the male body came during that period. It’s hard to watch Challengers without thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe (whose photography also appeared in Call Me By Your Name) and Andy Warhol. Guadagnino immortalizes the bodies of its leads before their eventual collapse. Physical beauty becomes enshrined through his lens and the various fake advertisements that fill the movie. The body is rendered, on one hand, as almost plastic in its doll-like beauty, and on the other, its fragility and fallibility become a central undercurrent of stress and anxiety. Within the film and in the world of tennis, by 30, you’re almost geriatric; by 40, you might as well be dead. Death doesn’t need to be mentioned to hang around the corners of the frame. Guadagnino instinctively understands that a film about beauty and youth must also be about what happens when those things are lost. 

Both male leads bring an appropriate amount of playfulness and pathos necessary for the roles. They both try to measure up to the impossible, falling short in very different ways. Josh O’Connor’s smug sensuality feeds into a kind of languid sluggishness. Mike Faist’s energy, conversely, is hoppy and nervous. He’s eager to please, an asset and a curse. Zendaya balances out the two of them with her stoic intensity. While many movie stars command the screen with a kind of unwilling openness, Zendaya’s appeal lies in the opposite. Her inner world is often cast in an aura of mystery. She’s not yet a great actress; her vocal performance is often a little dry, but she’s often a strong presence. She excels more in her body language and can direct the emotion of the scene with a gesture or a stance. Yet, Zendaya’s indecipherable weariness and melancholy drive her appeal as an actress. Her beauty can barely hold together a permeating sadness she can’t help but emanate. It adds a compelling drive to a movie like this, anchoring the film’s flighty soap opera drama and the sexy love triangle in something tangible and unhappy.

As a Guadagnino skeptic, Challengers indulges in his strengths. It’s beautifully trashy, finding elegance in our base instincts. It’s a film that is both frustratingly and thankfully commercial, as it embraces the surface pleasures of cinema. It’s a series of ads and a celebration of cinema as the landscape of wet dreams. It’s a movie that uses the glossy aesthetics of a magazine spread to undercut that fantasy. While Challengers never loses sight of its sense of play, it doesn’t feel entirely brainless. At its heart, it’s a movie that celebrates the idea that sex, even messy and uncomfortable sex, is also an incredible driver of meaning and pleasure in our lives. Sex isn’t just an instinct, it’s a gateway to self-discovery and a topic still ripe for artistic exploration. ■

Challengers (directed by Luca Guadagnino)

Challengers opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 26.

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