Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Challengers' - Game, set, match to Zendaya & Co.

Challengers Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
By David Mouriquand
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Love all. In all senses of the term?


How bad is your drive to win?

And what if you’re not playing the same game as your opponent?

Challengers follows three ambitious tennis players: best friends Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), and rising star Tashi (Zendaya). When the two boys meet Tashi for the first time, they are adolescent wrecks, both instantaneously lust struck. It’s a libidinous spark that will affect the trio for the rest of their lives, as cocksure Patrick and more reserved Art decide to simultaneously pursue her. She promises to give her phone number to whoever wins the next match.

Game on, as the on-court competition morphs into an off-court battle of one-upmanship, jealousy, spite, and drive.

Through a flashback construction, which simply but effectively challenges the audience’s sympathies and creates a deceptively complex riddle which mirrors the scorekeeping in a tennis match, we witness their journey - while tethered to the present day when Tashi is married to Art. She had a relationship with Patrick beforehand. Art went professional, while a cruel injury destroyed both Tashi’s prodigy status and career plans. She has become an exacting coach to her husband, who has hit something of a losing streak.

He’d do anything for her. So would she. But they’re not talking about the same sport.

“I love you,” he says.

“I know,” she replies, in an aloofness that masks something deeper.

Still, to boost his confidence before the US Open, she enters him in a low-key Challenger tournament. However, her game plan goes into the tramlines when Art has to play against his former best friend, whose talent is still intact - even if his career isn’t.

ChallengersWarner Bros. Pictures

Luca Guadagnino is no stranger to desire. From palpable sexual tension of A Bigger Splash to the sexy cannibalism of Bones And All, via peach defiling in Call Me By Your Name and ... well everything about Suspiria, the Italian filmmaker has an unparalleled ability to get tactile. And even with those credentials, Challengers is one sensual piece of work. 

Sweat drips; muscles flex; groins ache; tongues mingle - in what some might call tonsil tennis; balls are smashed.

Tennis balls, that is.

Although that last one is debatable, as this isn’t a tennis film. It’s a racy portrait of uncompromising ambition, friendship, sacrifice, and what (or who) you truly desire. And while sexuality is centre court (as teased by the trailers), eroticism never takes the lead over the layered psychological exploration of relationships and power.

As Tashi tells the boys: “Tennis is a relationship.” And its dynamics aren’t always smooth or easy to define.

Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes expertly balance the thematical weight throughout, in a twisty and frequently humorous manner, refusing to pick sides and always keeping the viewer guessing who has the upper hand. Because this is not your conventional love triangle story. And no one is ever worth fully rooting for.

ChallengersWarner Bros. Pictures

While technically and thematically rich, what makes Challengers soar are the performances.

O’Connor is perfect throughout as someone who becomes the enemy of his own story through assumed but crippling arrogance. His performance is heightened by Faist’s straight man act, as Art is equally dedicated but comparatively gentler, representing a flame-extinguishing, life force-threatening influence on Tashi.

Their chemistry reveals another facet to Challengers, which becomes a homoerotic odyssey that is carefully and often humorously teased throughout. And while Freud stated that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, there’s no mistaking that in the intentionally playful casa di Guadagnino, a banana or a churro is not just a foodstuff. You can bet that there will be audience members who will delight in delving into how the film can be read as a queer story, with Tashi serving as the matchmaker who dispels the underlying tension and untangles their feelings for them.


After all, she is “taking such good care of my little white boys.”

But that’s a (possibly reductive) analysis for another time.

Which brings us to Zendaya, who gives her strongest performance to date, a grand slam turn that revels in ambiguity. Tashi is driven, has shades of Lady Macbeth in her strategies and dynamic-puppeteering, and Zendaya manages to communicate through the subtlest of gestures that her frustration at her own career path bleeds into her every move. Both ferocious and cold as a hailstorm, Tashi is a fascinating character in the sense that decoding her true intentions is a true pro’s game.

You even get to wonder whether she’s at all romantically interested in either one of the lads, or if she just plots a course to watch some “good fucking tennis”. And since she can’t physically get on the court and play the game, why not play another one – a psycho-sexual headfuck in which the goal is the pursuit of perfection?

ChallengersWarner Bros. Pictures

If that doesn’t sound like enough to get your heart pounding (what more do you adrenaline junkies need??), rest assured that while Challengers isn’t a sports film per se, there’s more than enough to be getting on with if you're aching for some kinetic thrills.


The tennis game segments are frequently exhilarating, especially in the final act, during which cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom goes into battle alongside Patrick and Art, even making the racquet and the ball his camera’s PoV. And there will be moments when you’ll instinctively duck in your seat.

Add Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ thumping techno-club score, which feels like a dynamic - if occasionally over-intrusive - epinephrin shot to the heart, and you’ll be treated to a heady and sensual rush unlike any other you’ve experienced in a cinema this year.

Guess that’s game, set, match to Luca.

Challengers is out in cinemas now.

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