Challengers Movie Review: This intense and intimate tennis drama almost serves up an ace

Challengers Movie Review: This intense and intimate tennis drama almost serves up an ace

The film, rooted in tennis, essentially summarises the complexities of dominance and submission within relationships in a non-straightforward manner
Challengers(3.5 / 5)

Silence. Absolute Silence. Three sweat drops trickle down from Josh O’Connor’s serious face, suggestive of the moment that decides it all. Cut to the title credits. This is how Challengers begins, and before we even get a hint at the story, we’re already biting our nails to know who will win. But there is more to Challengers than just tennis. With Challengers, Luca Guadagnino takes the conventional love triangle and stuffs it with a cartload of relationship dynamics and lovemaking to give an intense motion picture rooted in the world of tennis. With a mostly edge-of-the-seat experience, Challengers offers a perfervid experience, although it falters in its momentum towards the fag end.

Director Luca Guadagnino

Cast: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

Challengers is a typical three-act film with a non-linear narrative. We start with the titular ‘Challenger’ match between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (O'Connor)—former thick friends and tennis partners thrown apart by their common love for tennis hotshot Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). Over the course of the film, the narrative cuts back and forth between the Challenger match and the history between the trio, ensuring that our concentration is wholly on the film while allowing us to take a breather from all the tennis action.

More than tennis itself, Challengers is about the relationship and chemistry between Art, Patrick, and Tashi. At the very beginning, it is established that Tashi is married to Art, and we get glimpses of their relationship dynamics, especially how she decides everything for him, from diet to exercise. We sense that something is missing in their relationship when they both wait for Art’s game to start in absolute silence, like they can’t wait for someone to come and break their awkwardness. In another scene, we see Art say, “I love you,” to which Tashi replies, “I know,” instead of the more conventional “Love you too,” hinting at a dominant-submissive relationship between them.

As for the bond between Patrick and Tashi, they’re both dominant enough to not have an imbalance of power, an aspect of characterisation that only results in conflict and confrontation. The brooding ego between these two characters forms the essence of Challengers. But, more than once, the film reiterates that instead of opposites, it's the like-minded that attract each other. In many scenes in the film, both Patrick and Tashi are seen sporting a T-shirt that reads, ‘I Told Ya’, which summarises what we feel about the turns their relationship takes. It is the sexual tension between these two characters that keeps the momentum going for a long time.

Challengers also has brilliant world-building, which extends to even the off-court action. We initially see Art, married to Tashi, waking up at the Ritz Hotel to a routine charted out with a choreographed workout and a restricted diet with even a bottled drink labelled 'Electrolytes'. On the contrary, we see a hungry Patrick, just up from his sleep in the car, borrowing half a doughnut from someone he just met. While these parallels are thought-worthy enough, we get another flashback moment in which Patrick tells Art, “Tashi Duncan is gonna turn her whole family into millionaires," and Art later ends up living just that life. In another scene, after Patrick and Art play the first set of the Challenger match, the film takes us back to a time when Tashi meets Patrick before the finale match. In a different context, Tashi says, "You typically stagger around the second round," hinting at how he gets overconfident if he wins the first set. This eventually comes true, as he falters in the second set after winning the first one in the match against Art. If observed and understood keenly, this staging and the callbacks add immense value to the film’s narrative.

Challengers is abundant with scenes of coitus and intense lovemaking akin to the sexual exploration featured in Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a different genre film. These scenes are placed at the right intervals to take your mind away from the monotony of tennis. Guadagnino gets us quite gripped in the world of tennis, but he also carefully distracts us away from it in a good way. We hear the commentator say, “Code violation, audible obscenity, warning Donaldson,” when Art uses profanity. We also see the usage of jargon like ‘Deuce’ and 'Advantage', a focus on Tashi’s backhand stroke, and close attention to how Art and Patrick serve, which makes for a brilliant callback. With these elements, the director ensures that there is enough in the film to appease tennis fans, even as the chemistry and love between the leads keep non-tennis viewers interested in the proceedings.

The film only falters towards the end, with an overboard of the tennis ball flying back and forth and with the camera panning to the viewers as they look to both ends of the court. By the time the third act comes, you wonder who will win. The answer to this question swallows the last 20 or more minutes of the film, making us go to the back of our seats from the edge. The audience watching the match in the film starts fanning as the sun comes up. They're tired, but they still don't want to miss out on what's next, an emotion we also feel towards the end. While Tashi, sitting amidst the audience starts fidgeting with her hands out of tension, we fidget due to tennis tedium. Nonetheless, the film's final shot answers the million-dollar question in a way that makes you think forever about what it could possibly mean.

At the end of the day, Challengers is a simple film about how a friendship of many years is impacted by a talented and captivating woman. The film essentially summarises the complexities of dominance and submission within relationships in a non-straightforward manner.

PS: For all those expecting pure tennis or pure intimacy, the film will be a disappointment. And for those expecting pure romance, the only love you get is 'forty-love’.

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