“Challengers” Is Essentially a Well-Shot Commercial

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“I don’t watch tennis matches,” Luca Guadagnino, the director of “Challengers,” a movie about tennis players, recently said in an interview with Little White Lies, a film magazine. “It’s quite boring to me.” The problem, he explained, has to do with how live sports are shot: tennis matches don’t look very dynamic because the camera has to be objective. “But for this film,” Guadagnino went on, “the tennis had to be very subjective. And who’s the subject? The subject is the movie.”

“The subject is the movie” is the kind of sentence that might send you into a k-hole if you dwell on it for too long. Fortunately, the movie itself is almost comically straightforward. Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) are best friends and junior tennis champions. They both fall for Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a tennis prodigy whose career is cut short by a knee injury. Though the film focusses narrowly on the love triangle between these characters, there is, in fact, some tennis, which is set to throbbing techno music—a score that Vulture pronounced “should be played at the club.” (The composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, also scored “The Social Network,” in which synth-heavy beats managed to make even coding seem exciting.) Guadagnino, as uninterested as he is in real-life tennis, offers us a cinematic vision of tennis-cum-acrobatics. Though diehard tennis fans will want to critique Faist and O’Connor’s serves—which are borderline terrible; Zendaya’s is passable—we aren’t given much time to fixate on any character’s form, because Guadagnino is constantly doing insane things with the camera. At one point, the camera becomes the ball, and we hurtle with it from racquet to racquet, until the perspective changes to give us a striking aerial view of the court. For another shot, of Art leaping over the net, the actor also had to jump over Guadagnino, who filmed him from below. This frenetic energy persists even when the characters stop playing. In between sets, they look at one another intensely, wipe off their sweat, and suck down packets of energy gel. Patrick bites into a banana, with meaning.

The tagline of “Challengers” is “Her game. Her rules”—a reference to how Tashi plays Patrick and Art off of each other, both on and off the court. The unofficial tagline, which has been repeated in several reviews and has become something of a rallying cry on social media, is “tennis is sex, and sex is tennis.” In 2011, the rom-com “Friends with Benefits” employed a similar metaphor to imply that both activities are meaningless. “It’s a physical act,” Justin Timberlake tells Mila Kunis, in one scene. “Like playing tennis. . . . It’s just a game. You shake hands, get on with your shit.” By the end of that movie, the characters realize that casual sex is impossible. “Challengers” is devoted to the idea that casual tennis is impossible: Guadagnino and Justin Kuritzkes, the screenwriter, mine the sport for its power dynamics. Winning a match means winning the girl; losing means cementing all her worst fears about you. Patrick and Art are attracted to Tashi in part because she looks like Zendaya, but the most alluring thing about her is how dominant she is on the court. “I’d let her fuck me with a racquet,” Patrick tells Art, as they watch Tashi trounce an opponent in a match that occurs years before her tragic injury. (The movie is set in multiple years, ranging from 2006 to 2019; my only guess about why the film doesn’t go all the way up to the present is that the writers wanted to avoid the question of how Patrick, a Novak Djokovic type, would have navigated vaccine requirements.) When the friends encounter her at a party, later that evening, Art tells her, “It wasn’t even like tennis. It was an entirely different game.”

After the party, we get the trailer’s pivotal scene—one that initially led people on social media to speculate that Tom Holland, Zendaya’s boyfriend, has been crying himself to sleep lately. (“Sorry Tom, she’s not your girl anymore,” jaweel6205 wrote in a YouTube comment. “Now she’s our girl.”) Tashi shows up at Patrick and Art’s hotel room, wearing a pink Juicy Couture zip-up jacket—perhaps the only reminder that the scene is supposed to take place in 2006. She kisses both of them, then prompts them to kiss each other. Are they about to have a threesome? No, tennis is a game designed for two players—or sometimes four—but not three. Tashi leaves, though she agrees to give her number to whichever boy wins their next match.

O.K., so “Challengers” is decidedly not about tennis. But is it about sex? You’d think so, especially if you were to peruse social media, where the film has been referred to as “the HOTTEST SEXIEST MOVIE EVER” and “the Horniest Sports Movie You’ll Ever See.” Many have compared “Challengers” with “Saltburn,” a stylish drama from late last year, which featured one of Zendaya’s “Euphoria” co-stars, Jacob Elordi. These two films, in their commitment to turning on the masses, seem to have given people hope in an era when the Hollywood sex scene is on the decline. “Movies like ‘Challengers’ and ‘Saltburn’ show eroticism has returned,” the Times declared, earlier this week. And yet, both films are sexy movies that offer very little in the way of sex. “Saltburn” ’s most talked-about scenes are the ones in which the main character, played by Barry Keoghan, is by himself, lapping up Elordi’s bathwater and, later, making love—I’m being generous—to Elordi’s grave. In “Challengers,” two of the most titillating moments are when Tashi and Patrick make out in an Applebee’s parking lot, and when Patrick devours a lubriciously greasy breakfast sandwich from Dunkin’. The lack of sex in these films isn’t necessarily a flaw; movies can find other ways to build narrative and erotic tension. (“Challengers” and “Saltburn” both accomplish this, in part, by casting actors who are incapable of doing anything without looking hot.) But what’s telling is how positively audiences responded to two-plus hours of being edged.

“Challengers” is a film made for a culture that is obsessed with buildup. Weeks before its première, fans began preparing themselves for the movie of the summer, as Zendaya appeared on the red carpet newly blond and in various tennis-inspired outfits put together by her stylist, Law Roach. The actor’s press-tour looks are far more interesting than anything she wears in the movie; her character gets injured before she can reach Serena Williams-level fame, so we primarily see her play in tennis whites and Stanford University gear. This hasn’t stopped filmgoers from showing up to the theatre in their own tennis-core outfits, not unlike how “Barbie” prompted viewers to embrace various shades of pink. But there was something funny about dressing up for “Barbie,” given the film’s attempts at critiquing the very world in which viewers longed to submerge themselves. The movie was a bait-and-switch. As Shonda Rhimes recently told Variety, “The weight people put on a movie about Barbie was very interesting to me. . . . I think that people wanted it to be sort of this feminist manifesto that it doesn’t need to be.”

“Challengers” is nominally about a woman who is much more talented than her two love interests and who is forced to take a back seat to both of them after she injures herself. It’s a role that Zendaya embodies with impressive gusto. (She is incredible, as are Faist and O’Connor, despite the fact that they’re often not given much to work with.) But, even if Tashi is a girlboss with two men wrapped around her finger, the movie is not feminist, nor is it a manifesto. It’s a shot of dopamine that doesn’t really argue anything—the cinematic equivalent of Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso.” Because “Challengers” has so little to say, and because its characters feel like clouds of sexy angst rather than real people, viewers are free to simply focus on the vibes, which happen to be the area where Guadagnino has distinguished himself as a director. In 2017, my colleague Richard Brody aptly compared “Call Me by Your Name,” another Guadagnino film that was short on physical intimacy and long on aesthetics, to a travelogue. Perhaps the boldest thing about “Challengers” is its color palette—blue courts, neon-green balls, white shoes—and its celebration of corporate sponsorship: Adidas, Uniqlo, Loewe, Aston Martin, Augustinus Bader . . . I could go on. Guadagnino has given us an extremely well-shot commercial.

In the last few minutes of the film, we get more foreplay between Patrick and Art: an almost astoundingly dragged-out sequence of the men facing off in the final set of a match, with Patrick intentionally committing double faults to prolong the game. After blue-balling viewers, the men finally start playing solid tennis during the tiebreak. They’re yelling, and, once the match finally ends, so is Tashi. We barely have time to register who—if anyone—won before the screen cuts to black. By depriving viewers of a climax for as long as possible, it seems that you can also circumvent the awkwardness that comes from postcoital clarity. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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