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In 2023, the film community bore witness to the resurgence and resounding success of the authentic, original story. From box office hits like Oppenheimer, Barbie and Across the Spiderverse to Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives, the bar for films in 2024 couldn’t have been set higher.  

Audiences want more than what the likes of Disney and Netflix have to offer. They want to watch films crafted by directors at the top of their game; they want to see new directors given a platform and ultimately, they want something true. 

 I mean this in a metaphorical sense, of course; not that every filmmaker should make a biopic, but rather that we want to see sincere and honest filmmaking where the agenda is not to make the most money, but to tell the best story.  

However, 2024 thus far has been a mixed bag, to say the least. Streaming services and production companies continue to pump out reboots, generic blockbusters and apparently even fanfictions. Though, every cloud, or in this case storm, has a silver lining and cinema’s in 2024 is Dune: Part Two – dare I say a generational film with abundant critical and audience acclaim. 

Unattached to either extreme, though, is Luca Guadagnino’s latest and I think, greatest pursuit, Challengers. An undeniably intense and intimate film that aims to explore the nature of toxic relationships through the vessel of tennis. 

Challengers centres itself around the relationship dynamic of three tennis players, Tashi, Art and Patrick from their teens to full adulthood 12 years later. Such significant time jumps are framed through flashback sequences and non-linear structuring, whilst intermittently cutting back to a ‘final’ tennis match between Art and Patrick.  

Challengers' Review: Zendaya in Luca Guadagnino's Sexy Grand Slam
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Their story begins as teen tennis players and best friends, sharing rooms, tournaments and a crush, Tashi. At a launch event one evening, they introduce themselves to her, each trying to one-up the other. In an ambitious and awfully accurate-to-teenage-men moment, they invite her back to their room – a scene in which a still went viral far before the release of the film (Observe right).  

Alongside going viral, it is one of the most narratively important scenes as Tashi talks about her incessant desire to watch “good tennis”. She offers the winner of the boy’s match against each other, her number – fuelling a rally that lasts far more than a few backhands and goes far beyond the court.  

Initially, it is Patrick who wins Tashi’s affection, dating her during their college years whilst Art watches in the stands. However, Tashi is too much for him and they break up. Only hours later in a tennis match, Tashi severely injures her knee, to which Art rushes from the stands to her side. Patrick comes to check on her only to be yelled out of the room by both Art and Tashi, a scene which excellently frames Tashi and Art as one against Patrick. A thought that remains in the mind of the audience and each character for much of the film. Cut to present and Tashi and Art are the power couple of the tennis world, yet their seemingly healthy relationship is not as it seems behind closed doors.  

In an interview with the Challengers cast by Letterboxd, Josh O’Connor, who plays Patrick, can be quoted as saying Guadagnino’s main focus is “the dynamics between characters and accepting the faults and finding the redemption [of the character(s)].” Whilst the former is unquestionably true throughout the director’s filmography, the latter is not – at least in the case of Challengers.  

Guadagnino explores each character’s flaws quite meticulously in this film. Patrick is shown time and time again as immature and ends up a homewrecker; Tashi is manipulative and deceiving and Art is, well, a pushover of sorts who lacks the conviction and will to stand up for himself. 

There is little sympathy to be garnered for Tashi or Patrick in the 2-hour, 11-minute runtime of the film. Their flaws are highlighted repeatedly, yet so few, if any are resolved. Tashi’s manipulative nature is brought to the fore when she cheats on Art with Patrick the night before their tennis game, trying to match fix the result with her body as the compensation. In usual Tashi fashion, she doesn’t do this to boost Art’s confidence, which would be questionable in its own right, but rather so that she can continue to watch a “good game of tennis” like she did when we were first introduced to her manipulative nature 12 years earlier.  

After the scene where she cheats, which might I add, is gorgeously shot, Tashi returns home to find Art asleep with their young daughter. In this heartbreaking sequence, she, just like the audience, is filled with immense guilt and a sort of sympathetic pity for Art. It’s a gut punch I haven’t felt for a while in the cinema. The scene establishes that Art’s character does deserve the audience’s sympathy, unlike Patrick or Tashi, and that he, unlike the others, may have never needed to be redeemed in the first place. 

Despite Josh O’Connor being partially wrong in his evaluation of Guadagnino films, it does not detract from his performance, or the film for that matter. All three members of the cast are excellent, with Zendaya once more, stamping her authority on 2024 with a second classy performance.  

Guadagnino ends Challengers with the same present-day tennis match we see at the beginning of the film. The pretty pastel colours that appear on screen contrast masterfully with the ugly, triangular character dynamic unfolding before our eyes as Art comes to the realisation that Tashi and Patrick slept together. The creativity in which the tennis is filmed with shot selections ranging from extreme-close-ups in slow motion to shots from beneath the court, mirrors the intensity of the drama unfolding. An intensity, no doubt, partially owed to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ retro dance score, inspired by the Berlin scene of the 90s.  

The movie ends with Tashi screaming and Patrick and Art embracing after an incredible rally. Whilst this ending is, on the surface, quite satisfying, I couldn’t help but realise that only Tashi’s character arc is completed – she got her good game of tennis. The match is left incomplete, as is Patrick and Art’s narrative. It isn’t a deal breaker, but it dampens the effect the film has on the audience and the message it had been building.  

Ultimately, Challengers is a refreshing, exciting and intense film for each genre it combines but fails to develop one of its key messages – to reflect on our passions and the concomitant effect that they have on the relationships in our lives – in a cohesive manner.  

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