24 Apr 2024

Review: Challengers

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 24 April 2024

Director Luca Guadagnino has had a glittering career, both in Italy and then internationally. 

From the literary I Am Love and the terrifying Suspiria, to the intimate gay love story Call Me By Your Name - there seems nothing he can’t handle.  

So why not a romantic triangle like Challengers?

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Photo: Screenshot

Surprisingly, Challengers isn’t actually an Italian production.  It’s entirely homegrown American, produced by two Hollywood industry figures, old and young. 

One is former Sony head honcho Amy Pascal, and the other is star Zendaya, who plays a tennis champion called Tashi.

Tashi came up the hard way from poor beginnings. But by the time we meet her, the world is her oyster. 

And two young tennis-players, Art and Patrick, working their way up rather more slowly, are star-struck when they meet her.

Mike Faist (Art) and The Crown’s Josh O’Connor (Patrick) – could afford to go to a private tennis school, but it doesn’t mean they’re not both fiercely competitive.

The competition between them goes on for years, with the film flashing backwards and forwards in time, while the fortunes of all three go up and down.

Patrick is the glamorous bad boy. Art is more the slow and steady type.  And the scenes we linger on most are that first meeting and the bitter, final play-off, winner takes all, many years later.

Of the two, only Art seems to be taking it all seriously. But for Tashi, taking it seriously isn’t necessarily the point of a competition – not in the early days at any rate.   

She’s a tennis player. And this seems to be the ultimate tennis match. Until suddenly it isn’t.

Just as Tashi closes in on tennis’s Number 1 slot, she has an accident on the court and breaks her leg badly. She knows that means the end of her tennis career.

Or is it? Both Art and Patrick know she understands the game better than anyone. With her in their corner, either challenger could become champion.

In most routine, ‘eternal triangle’ stories, audiences usually have a pretty good idea of the outcome.

No matter how much the star couple seem unsuited, and how attractive the romantic third wheel may appear, we can usually guess who gets who in the end.

But smart film makers – like everyone involved in Challengers, including writer Justin Kuritzkes – realise audiences like to be kept guessing.  

The blueprint was a French New Wave film called Jules and Jim, which, like Challengers, kept putting off the decision.  

Here, decent but insecure Art offers stability. Flashy risk-taker Patrick offers excitement. Which one do we choose?

The one we choose of course is Tashi herself, who, as played by Zendaya, is by far the most appealing character, partly because she can’t make up her mind.  

And Challengers isn’t about happy endings – or endings at all. It’s about what keeps top tennis players going – game after game, set after set, match after match, tournament after tournament.

Making the film better than you’d expect – especially for non-pro tennis players – is how it’s directed by Guadignino.   

The way he drowns out boring arguments with Trent Reznor’s punchy music. How he switches the point of view in the matches – at one stage, daringly, from the ball’s point of view – is often dazzling.

But the performances are the point - young, playful, self-centred, sexy. Star Zendaya is now queen of the world and this is why. 

Her model good looks, her passion on the tennis court, her refusal to back down – right now she’s the most interesting thing on the screen.

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