Comfortable and Furious

Challengers: Dripping with subtext

After reading the synopsis of Challengers, I was very much expecting a movie about tennis. The film’s synopsis is “Tashi, a tennis player turned coach, has transformed her husband from a mediocre player into a world-famous grand slam champion. To jolt him out of his recent losing streak, she makes him play a challenger event – close to the lowest level of tournament on the pro tour. Tensions soon run high when he finds himself standing across the net from the once-promising, now-burnt-out Patrick, his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend.” Sounds like a tennis movie, right?

Challengers is very much not about tennis. Tennis is just the setting. Like a cabin in the woods or New York City or a galaxy far, far away. Sure, literal tennis happens in some of the scenes, but even in those scenes the tennis isn’t really tennis. Challengers is a relationship movie and the tennis we see is dripping (literally in some scenes) with sexual tension and innuendo.

Challengers is a fascinating take on the well-worn love triangle. With today’s sensibilities destigmatizing homosexuality and bisexuality, director Luca Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes are free to fully explore all three sides and points of the triangle, and in all directions. Bouncing back and forth through time, the film shows us the evolution of the triangle, crafted and shown to us within the context of a single tennis match occurring in the present. Even for those not familiar with the nuances of the sport, they will easily see the parallels and metaphors used to enhance the characters and their story. 

(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)

As the synopsis states, Tashi (Zendaya) coaches her husband Art (Mike Faist) and used to date Art’s former best friend and struggling tennis player Patrick (Josh O’Connor). What the synopsis doesn’t state is that Tashi was on her way to stardom when a catastrophic injury destroyed her playing career. In the first few flashbacks, we are treated to pre-injury Tashi. She’s extremely confident, eminently likable, and laser-focused on her career. Playing at the same tournament, Patrick convinces Art to go watch Tashi play and Art is immediately infatuated. That night, the three of them find themselves making out together in the boy’s room and it’s here where the film lets us know what this movie is truly about.

The beauty of the film is there are several different ways to interpret the three characters’ tangled relationship and how each feels about the other two. I don’t think Tashi has more than shallow feelings for either Art or Patrick. She loathes Patrick, but keeps self-destructively going back to him because of her own self-loathing and self-pity (she never got over her own injury). She married Art not because she fell in love with him, but because Art is her tennis avatar. She mentions several times that she doesn’t want to be a homewrecker, then wrecks her own home after wrecking their marriage.

During the almost-threesome scene, Tashi has a look on her face of pure mischief. To her, playing the two men is just a game to her, which fits her overall worldview that everything is a game. When Art says he loves her, she casually and almost dismissively responds with “I know.” Tashi’s only true love is tennis. But if you told me Tashi had deep feelings, equally for Art and Patrick, there’s a strong case for that interpretation as well.

As far as Patrick and Art, it’s easy to say these two are in love with each other and don’t know it. Tashi picks up on it right away, even blatantly asking them. When they laugh it off and deny it, Tashi proves her point and gives us that mischievous look. But I think she gets Art at least partly wrong. On more than one occasion he tells Tashi “how could someone not love you?” Art sees Patrick as his best friend and someone he’s perfectly at ease with. Patrick though? Very gay. All of Patrick’s actions are designed to get Art’s attention. Patrick was going to lose to Art on purpose in their first match until he felt threatened by Tashi taking Art away from him. Patrick trying to ruin Art and Tashi’s marriage on more than one occasion. In other words, Art loves Patrick, but Patrick is in love with Art.

Guadagnino isn’t going to make interpretation that easy though. The innuendo in the movie is thick when it isn’t just outright stated/shown. Art and Patrick chomping on churros together (even each other’s). Patrick making a point of all-but deep throating a banana while smirking suggestively at Art. Patrick literally smacking Art’s erection after the abortive threesome. A sauna scene with just Art and Patrick. That Guadagnino chose to show multiple penises, but not a single female breast or nipple (unless we count Tashi’s see-through bra in her break-up scene with Patrick). And that’s before we get to the tennis scenes.

The tennis action shots were not very well done (though Zendaya really does look and play like a legitimate tennis player), but much of that is because of the focus on the imagery. Balls flying at the camera. Sweat dripping everywhere (no tennis player – or any athlete, for that matter – would try to play with that much sweat dripping off their face, including their eyelashes). Chaotic edits going back and forth and back and forth. Close-ups on hands gripping racquet shafts and deftly handling bouncing balls. Every frame of these scenes is intentionally crafted to make you wonder what the two men are really thinking about.

Guadagnino does such a great job with these characters that at least two of them were loathsome in some way by the end. Or very sympathetic. Again, it depends on how you choose to interpret what you see. This isn’t the kind of emotion you feel from watching insipid characters like everyone in the Fast and Furious franchise. This is the kind of emotion you feel for characters so meticulously developed and so complex that you experience feelings you’ve only read about. With the mile-thick layer of sexual tension piled on, you’ll be emotionally exhausted by the end of the film and you’ll love Guadagnino for it. Or hate him.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. Do ask for a towel and a cigarette.







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