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Challengers Review: Luca Guadagnino’s teasing, breathlessly shifty masterwork of power games

Delivering an explosive shot of visceral queer pleasure, the director operates on a jaw-dropping, altogether new level of genius

4/5rating
Challengers Review: Luca Guadagnino’s teasing, breathlessly shifty masterwork of power games

Last Updated: 02.51 PM, May 10, 2024

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Story: Zendaya plays Tashi, a former teenage tennis prodigy whose career gets brutally cut short after an injury. She becomes a manager, her only client being her husband, Art (Mike Faist). He has been reigning supreme in men’s tennis but is showing signs of fading out. She enrols him into a low-level championship match, eager for it to re-energise him with the appetite he seems to have lost. However, one of Art's opponents turns out to be Patrick (Josh O'Connor), Art's former best friend, until Tashi comes between them.

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Review: Desire and fury ignite in Challengers, with tension so combustible it could set a house ablaze. This film thrives on rapidly escalating emotional volatility, where every relationship teeters on the edge of imbalance at any given moment.

The film revels in an unbridled sense of physical intimacy as well as the ache distance builds. In the very opening sequence, glistening beads of sweat ricochet off bodies, practically plunging at the viewer. Immediately, the camera shuttles away from the boys to focus on Tashi’s critical, cutting gaze that already gives a peek into her ultimately determinant power. The reins seem to be in her hands.

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Tashi belongs to the pantheon of characters whose charisma is so immense it can dictate the scope of an entire relationship’s wavelength. She makes it instantly clear she will be the one setting the rules. If it doesn’t sit well with the other, they may as well call it quits. It is only that no one can resist being enveloped within the blaze she ignites by just her force of presence. In a career-best performance, Zendaya, utterly magnetic, carefully, and with a precise degree of iciness, registers Tashi’s ferocity, ruthlessness and the unquenchable thirst for ambition that drives her. While piling on the provocation with ease, the actress is also able to draw in ambiguity regarding the full bandwidth of Tashi’s constantly ticking mind as she puts into place another of her schemes.

When Patrick and Art watch one of Tashi's matches for the very first time, she lashes back at her opponent with spectacular force, the entrancement on their faces is almost amusing. It's almost like watching Tashi conduct a sort of thrall over all her spectators. At a party later, they can’t help but get pulled towards Tashi. However, the power of attraction she wields holds its own fair share of manipulation, the impact of which unravels damagingly in this bewitching film. She unlocks their sexual repression, tucked away into several denials, even as she seems fundamentally elusive through the many years the film sprawls across. She remains almost out of touch.

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Marco Costa’s sinuous editing makes the film’s numerous leaps across a span of almost nineteen years seamlessly heady and propulsive; the segues are as deftly pulled off as the constantly mischievous insinuations into a dynamic power play. Often the intervals have the space of several years, some weeks and a few days. It's impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen for even a second. Guadagnino exerts a vice-like grip; the director, despite rarely having made a dull film, has never been this confident and agile in sparking into motion the complex, clashing rhythms of his narrative.

Patrick and Art may try to conceal a thing or two from the other seemingly to prevent imminent heartbreak but they are so acutely aware of one another's habits and moods that hiding doesn't get to be an option for too long. Challengers ride on a terrifically nifty, razor-sharp screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, that traverses a maddening breadth of morally fraught territory with unapologetic sass and hungering freedom. If viewed from paradigms of a lofty moral logic, the three characters are all doing quite hurtful things to one another but both Kuritzkes and Guadagnino are too sophisticated as artists to indulge in petty sentimentality stemming from frequent tussles. There’s abundant scope here for melodramatic beats however the hardened severity the film bases its axis on keeps deflecting those easy inclinations. The screenplay is so tight and concentrated it leaves nary room for the possibility of any fight to be drawn out longer than it can afford to be. Few of the savage quips Tashi hurls at the men are instant classics.

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This is throbbing, kinetic filmmaking that also derives a lot of its giddying effects from the techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The soundscape animates the mounting frustration and resentment in its characters, both inside and outside the tennis court, with electric vigour. The tennis matches have a primal, carnal thrust. “Tennis is a relationship, it’s almost like being in love”, Tashi remarks, adding that the two players go someplace beautiful in the course of the game, wholly shutting out the rest of the world. In the taut span of those minutes, for the players vying against each other, everything else melts away.

DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shoots the sets with feverish, hypnotic intensity. Every swerve, the thud of the cock against a racket, dribbles of sweat off bare skin, auditory groans and gasps accumulate into a tactile, sensory experience. Tennis fuels the sex in the film and vice versa. It’s an intoxicating battle of wills, allowing the viewer to relish every bit of its relationships hitting a rocky edge. Even the rippling crack of a ligament is rendered so joltingly that the physical effect almost transmits. All of it accelerates towards an unforgettable, stunning coda, that bursts through with such stylistic audacity, grounded in a smartly handled subtextual apogee, it will leave you spinning in the air.

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Verdict: Challengers is thrilling, precarious, and powered by an almost unhinged unpredictability that surrounds the messy decisions of its three leads – none of whom actually seem positively healthy for the other. The blazing trio of Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist has the most erotically charged, twisted chemistry that lends the film its spellbinding potency. In its uncoy embrace of full-bodied pleasure, passion and power-play, Luca Guadagnino has orchestrated a tense, pulsating drama that slips out of your grasp every time it misleads you into thinking you know where it’s headed.

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