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Sex and tennis go well with Challengers

Sex and tennis go well with Challengers


When I was a kid worrying about tennis lessons, I never could have imagined that if I had stuck with the sport (and been good at it), it might one day have led to something like the sexy entanglements of Luca GuadagninoS Challengers (in cinemas from April 26). Who would have thought that a game with such a solitary focus could actually be the conduit for charged, erotic interpersonal adventure?

Challengerswritten by Justin Kuritzkes, is something of a souped-up fantasy in which the rigorous work of a professional athlete is, at almost every turn, amiably offset by a languid air of summer possibility. There is certainly guts, anger and all kinds of professional jealousy. But that tension is easily broken by a spirited conversation, by a witty bit of flirting. These elite, hard-driving machines are also a lot of fun. And so we do that too.

At least for a while. The film jumps in time and uses a charged tennis match from 2016 between top star Art (Mike Faist) and bad luck Patrick (Josh O'Connor) as a framing device. This is a podunk tournament in New Rochelle, but the stakes seem very high for these two men. Challengers then travels back to the antagonist's younger days to explain why it all means so much. Art and Patrick's teenage and college years are the film at its most alluring, a heady cocktail of sex and showmanship and the emerging glow of a movie star that feels terribly special and rare in this age of pale and featureless pop cinema.

Art and Patrick are childhood friends and attended a prestigious tennis academy together. Halfway through high school, they are about to graduate and go to college (for arts) or turn pro (for Patrick) and compete as a doubles pair in the junior competition at the US Open. It is there that they see Tashi (Zendaya), a true child prodigy on his way to mega-stardom. The boys chat her up at a party and, despite their crazy fumbling, manage to win her over so she agrees to continue their evening. In a smoky hotel room strewn with beer cans, the trois become a ménage.

Or something close to it. Guadanigno stages this seduction scene (in which there is no doubt that Tashi is in charge) with dazzling, homoerotic (or is it panerotic?) verve. Things are loose and playful, but also, throbbing beneath the surface, quite serious. We are witnessing the crucial turning point of a friendship; it would probably be better for everyone to stop, so as not to complicate matters in this way. But the rational mind is no longer in the driver's seat. Tashi is interested in these boys for herself, but she also encourages and encourages them to see what they can actually do for each other. Is all their competitive bonhomie, that intense high school friend bond, masking a simpler attraction?

That question is debated throughout the film, but Tashi remains the main object of men's obsession. The triangle of Challengers is constantly reorienting; As the years pass, Art and Patrick exchange advantages, in love and career. What gets a little lost in all the crying is Tashi, whose dreams are derailed by an injury and who gradually becomes a point on Art and Patrick's scoreboard. Admittedly, she is the main artist Challengers nevertheless, a formidable character turns into something of an object by the end.

Challengers is not exactly brittle before cover. It is too humane and refined a film for that. But it would have been nice to see Tashi develop alongside the two men who were so hungry in her orbit. Zendaya, Faist and O'Connor have a deep and magnetic rapport, excited and biting, that the film deftly cultivates in its first hour. Even if it was just the second half, like Challengers becomes louder and meaner, gave it the same care. Instead, the back and forth movement of the romantic melodrama becomes repetitive, a rally that lasts too long.

In any case, the tennis remains exciting. Guadagnino films the gameplay so kinetic and readable that every punch Every drop of sweat on the ball is felt. The sport is depicted as a wonderful brutality, hard and strenuous, but a glorious experience for the whole body. Speaking of bodies, Guadagnino certainly knows how to film those of men, resting and moving. The camera glides over Art and Patrick, or pauses to look at them, in a way that feels more celebratory than it leers at a lustful awe at breasts, thighs, and jawlines that's almost sweet in its appreciation.




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