film / tv / substack / social media / lists / web / celeb / pajiba love / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / substack / web / celeb

challengers movie.jpeg

'Challengers' Is Pleasure Incarnate: Sexy, Funny, Throbbing

By Jason Adams | Film | April 26, 2024 |

By Jason Adams | Film | April 26, 2024 |

challengers movie.jpeg

Sorry straight people—only gay people can make Sports Movies now. I know you thought Sports were your safe space. And honestly, this hapless limp-wrister with two left feet here was more than happy to let you have them. (Just check any of my previous reviews of Sports Movies for proof.) That is until Luca Guadagnino came along with his sweat-drenched sex ‘n tennis techno symphony Challengers anyway, and showed me the light. Specifically the light glimmering off of Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist’s court-side torsos as they deep-throat Gatorade bottles and bananas with sly winking gusto. Ohh, so this is what Sports are all about? Sign me up then! I guess I’m a jock now!

Groan-worthy gay stereotype humor aside, Challengers works so fiery well because it quite honestly doesn’t give a shit about tennis. If you don’t know your “advantage set” from your “golden slam” neither Guadagnino’s direction nor Justin Kuritzkes’ script is going to insist you do, or attempt to school you on it. In fact, I’d argue the film goes out of its way to abstract the sport itself past the point of comprehension. It’s hardly the first or even the thousandth Sports Movie to use the game as a metaphor for the relationships between its characters. But it is the latest. And, I’d argue, one of the greatest. This really should be how these things are done!

Fracturing its story to the point where the on-screen titles telling us where we are in the timeline begin to feel like their own meta joke—forty-eight hours previous to ten years ago, plus three weeks, minus a year, carry the seven—Challengers starts us at, or near, its ending. On one side of the net we have grubby bruised dark-horse Patrick (O’Connor); on the other the bright blond wonder boy with some nevertheless weary eyes named Art (Faist). And sitting in the stands straight down the net is the gorgeous and intense girl who’s come between them—metaphorically and physically—named Tashi (Zendaya). How they each got here we will find out, but their triangle is already quite literal—the court itself is providing the lines.

And Guadagnino’s camera (reteaming with Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria lenser Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) delights in making all of its metaphors turn determinedly physical. The entire movie is a windy Almodovarian melodrama told via camera movement and cuts and enough dramatic head-turns for ten telenovelas. And then it’s all slathered over even further with a rager of a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, one that doesn’t so much underline things as rewrite them in bright red marker across its own face. Subtle it ain’t, and thank goodness. What it is then is joy, absolute joy—thrilling and arousingly tactile and stand-up-and-cheer stuff.

Challengers is pleasure incarnate. Sexy, funny, throbbing. Luca and his actors are having a blast and they want us to too. Even in its sad moments, this is a movie flexing its big beautiful multiplex muscles—its characters have big dicks, and they want you to know it, dammit. Guadagnino is a director who’s always trafficked in pleasure but it’s never been this much forward-facing fun before—his camera endlessly swooping around, the ever exquisitely chaotic editing from Marco Costa spinning us like a ball in flight. Challengers gets your heart racing by wearing its own racing heart on its sleeve.

The first act (set squarely in its present day) is admittedly Challengers’ slowest—it’s the set-up. Picture a ball (or two even) suspended in the air. At one point, we sit in a back room with Art and Tashi (at this point married with a young daughter) as they wait for a match to begin, and Art just stares in silence at some sunlight. And that’s what this first act feels like. The pause before hitting play. And a thwack. From there the film’s rhythm steamrolls. Even as it skips through time-periods, the only real signifiers between them being people’s different hair, the movie thrusts forward with relish once that main triangle has been established. Summation-wise Art and Patrick used to be the best of sentence-finishing friends—and then came Tashi. Cue techno and vibrating calves.

The trio’s relationships fracture and reconstitute, incoherently (as go we all) at times. Up, down, sideways, dancing along the length of the net. But it all builds to its own inescapable crescendo thanks to the film’s seductively precise plotting, mapped out by the script, the edit, the performances—all firing in unison. A whirlwind of passions lobbing them back and forth like (dare I say) metaphorical playthings. This is what poetry in motion means. This movie right here. Luca is just showing off now, man.

Love triangles are one of the oldest stories in the book—so old that some of those books have turned to dust—and yet Challengers never stops feeling deeply, hornily alive. Our actors are a big part of that—the boys are both giving star-making turns while Zendaya, already a star, proves why. But it’s impossible to not keep going back to that camera, and what Guadagnino & Co are doing with it. Because its restlessness, its curiosity, never settles—they will find fifteen different ways to shoot Josh O’Connor’s cheekbones and by god they will all, every damn one of them, take your breath away. No wonder actors want to work with Luca so much—his love for what they do is so palpable it’s erotic.

The entire machine of Challengers is built to bring us back around to its beginning—to show us why these two dudes are standing on opposite sides of that net with that girl in the center, and why any of it matters. And, spoiler alert, Sports ain’t it. Guadagnino went and tossed off one of the great Sports Movies by blowing the dust off the very notion of competitiveness—why any of us are doing anything we’re doing. And he put his fingers to its wrist, pressing its pulse to fire harder. Hotter. Brighter. Challengers is here in all its blood and sweat and semen to remind us why we keep pushing on; to remind us why our hearts beat.