Is it love, sex, or tennis? While sometimes fun, 'Challengers' is mostly surface-level

Love, sex, or tennis? Lack of emotion renders Challengers shallow
Love, sex, or tennis? Lack of emotion renders Challengers shallow Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
By Lauren Chadwick
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

Counter point: While Euronews Culture's resident film critic enjoyed Luca Guadagnino’s new film, some disagree. In 'Challengers', you come expecting a story about love, sex, and relationships and receive one that while sleek, feels empty.


In response to last week’s Film of the Week review, which praised the film, here's a counter-argument...

With a remix of Rihanna’s S&M, the trailer for Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers would have us think we’re in for an intense two-hour sexy romp, focused on the dynamics of a love triangle between its glowing leading stars.

The film follows the story of three central characters. There’s Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), bunkmates at a tennis academy who both end up fawning over Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a young prodigy whose career is cut short by an injury.

Guadagnino unravels the story of these characters with an intriguing back and forth through different eras of their lives, from Patrick and Art both attempting to seduce her, to her tumultuous early relationship with Patrick to her later marriage and professional partnership with Art all in the midst of the high-stakes world of professional tennis.

But while exceedingly glamorous, the film provides a mostly surface-level look at the intertwined lives of these characters. And when it comes down to it, the story feels simplistic, with Art as a loving husband, Patrick as the obnoxious playboy, and Tashi as the ambitious athlete.

ChallengersWarner Bros. Pictures

Are there stakes? Certainly in the main tennis game. The Challenger game in New Rochelle, NY where the film begins and ends is one that Patrick, whose career is a disappointment, needs to win for prize money and his ego, and Art, who has become a tennis champion, needs to use to regain confidence before the US Open.

But it’s not supposed to be just about the game. Guadagnino has said instead that it’s a “passionate love story where the rules of the game of tennis become the rules of the game of seduction”.

Is there love or passion?

“What makes you think I want someone to be in love with me?” Tashi asks when Art says Patrick doesn’t love her. When they’re older and Art, now her husband, says he loves her, she responds with a hollow “I know”.

Her real love is tennis and her blind ambition feels central to her interest in mixing with either of the other characters. But the audience never gets close enough to her to connect with that ambition or desire and for the other characters, while it sometimes feels like they’re in love, at times, you’re convinced they’re in love with each other.

The lack of emotional stakes means the audience remains uninvested in these relationships.

ChallengersWarner Bros. Pictures

Everything is instead sleek, sporty, and sweaty but the entire world feels perfunctory, with the film coming across as a glitzy advertisement akin to the billboard Tashi and Art grace side-by-side.

And much like in the global sports arena, this movie has its fair share of brand ads.

From Uniqlo on the characters’ sweatshirts and Adidas sneakers to Wilson and Head rackets and what looks like Augustinus Bader cream, the movie is overflowing with products. Its biggest success is in selling this glossy, driven sports world rather than a passionate love triangle.

There’s a moment where the three characters kiss each other sloppily as teenagers, the beginnings of a threesome that doesn’t come to fruition. It’s supposed to be seductive, but as in most of the film, there aren’t many consequences for the characters’ actions, from fights to infidelity.

They spend most of the movie just, as they say, hitting a ball with a racket in the game and in their lives. At one point the audience even becomes the ball, swinging back and forth through time and pairings.

Are we invested in the outcome?

Tashi’s injury plays out as the sole emotional centre-point of the movie, perhaps influencing her actions and relationships. But beyond her gut-wrenching cry, as the accident cuts her career short, we never get more of her motivation.


While perhaps a reflection on where ambition and desire can land you in the back and forth of a game of tennis or seduction, the film, though stylish and sometimes fun, can ring hollow, with its glitzy surface depriving it of a deeper meaning.

Challengers is out now in cinemas.

Share this articleComments

You might also like