Challengers  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Luca Guadagnino, US, 2024, 132 mins

Cast:  Zedenya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist

Review by Carol Allen

Although never acknowledged until late in the day, this is not your classic “eternal triangle” story, as in which guy gets the girl.  It’s a fine bromance with the girl as catalyst and controller.  It also, surprisingly for a film that has been hailed as very sexy, has  little in the way of explicit sex scenes and no female nudity. 

Set in the world of professional tennis, the triangle is composed of best friends and potential young tennis champs Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), who are captivated by rising star player Tashi (Zedenya), when they meet her at an after tournament party.  They both vie for her favours.  Patrick first becomes her boyfriend, but when they split up Art wins the lady’s heart and marries her.  

But it’s a lot more complicated than that.  By telling the story in a non-linear way, darting about among the years, screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes and director Luca Guadagnino are potentially able to go far more effectively into the dynamics of this three way relationship.  The time changing is clearly indicated with captions, so we’re never in the dark as to where we are in the thirteen year span of the story and the actors ensure we know where they are both physically and emotionally.

Performances are good too.  Zadenya is stunning.  When we first meet her as a young tennis star, with her striking looks, long legs and slim body she is a goddess in a tennis frock.   She also handles well the scenes of Tashi as a mature woman, reduced to coaching her husband after an accident ends her own playing career and coping with the challenges of marriage and motherhood.  The two men age convincingly from callow youth.  Art changes from cute and cocky to an insecure man whose personal life is as wonky as his waning tennis career, while Patrick, when we first meet him in his maturity is still cheekily confident but on his uppers financially, sleeping in his car and playing low grade matches to get some money together.

The film opens with the two men playing against each other in a final vicious match which will define the true basis of the triangular relationship.  This sub text action is first indicated early in the film, when young Tashi “auditions” the boys’ kissing skills and their most passionate snog is with each other.   Zadenya keeps her clothes on throughout, even when sex is on the horizon but the men frequently reveal all, particularly in a scene between the mature Art and Patrick in a Turkish bath.  As for the climactic tennis match to the death between them, which we return to many times throughout the film and where many balls are bashed, how will that pan out?  

Despite the film’s many excellent qualities, which include the beautiful photography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who shot Guadagnino’s previous, highly praised Call Me By Your Name, by the time we got to the reveal, which has been hinted at throughout, I didn’t really care that much.  The constant flashing backwards and forwards in time loses its appeal after a while, as it is no longer illuminating the characters in any real sense, while the pounding musical soundtrack drowns out quite a lot of the dialogue.  

The three leads are however well worth watching and there’s an awful lot of tennis throughout, very convincingly filmed, so if you’re a tennis fan, you’ will enjoy that too