Challengers review – Zendaya holds court in absurdly sexy three-way tennis romance

Challengers review – Zendaya holds court in absurdly sexy three-way tennis romance

Nobody harnesses horniness quite like Luca Guadagnino. With his lavish, luxurious portrait of forbidden lust, the Tilda Swinton-starring I Am Love, Guadagnino embraced one of cinema’s most cliched symbolic sensual devices, filling the frame with come-hither shots of delectable food. But somehow, in his hands, this hackneyed metaphor feels fresh, and the film is a skin-tingling exploration of erotic tension. Then there’s Call Me By Your Name, with its scenes of peach-grappling and languid yearning, in which even the spaces between the characters are charged with longing. And Bones and All, which virtually rebrands cannibalism as a legitimate kink. But even by Guadagnino’s highly charged standards, Challengers is an absurdly sexy movie. With its power plays and exquisite cruelty, the shimmering beauty of its three leads and their tantalising interlocking desires, and the slow-motion shots of pooling sweat dripping on to the lens, the film borders on trashy at times, but it’s so much fun that it’s practically indecent.

At the very centre of the story, and providing much of the muscular energy that drives it, is a never better Zendaya. Deploying every last drop of her silky star quality, she plays Tashi, a former tennis prodigy. When we meet her, Tashi is now coaching her husband, Art (Mike Faist, channelling a thorny combination of brash entitlement and neediness), a multi-grand-slam-winning tennis champion who has hit a confidence-sapping losing streak. And it’s more than his career that hangs in the balance. The stress is compounded because Art is well aware that for his wife, losers are a massive turn-off. “I love you,” he says plaintively. “I know,” she purrs, lazily uninterested. Advantage Tashi.

Steely, businesslike and definitely the one who wears the tennis shorts in this relationship, she decides to pull her floundering husband out of a high-profile forthcoming competition and to enter him instead into a low-stakes regional Challenger tournament, the 2019 Phil’s Tire Town Challenger in New Rochelle, New York. The idea is that the podunk circuit, frequented mainly by unseeded players at the very beginning or end of their careers, is unlikely to throw up an opponent who will further dent Art’s beleaguered game.

What the couple hadn’t anticipated was that they would encounter Patrick Zweig (a devilishly charming Josh O’Connor), a washed-up former hotshot coasting on charisma and the pocket change he can still scrape from occasional wins. This wouldn’t be a concern, but for the fact that Patrick is Tashi’s ex-boyfriend and formerly Art’s closest friend. And as such, Patrick is uniquely well placed to get inside his opponent’s head and blunt his competitive edge.

Zendaya and the ‘devilishly charming’ Josh O’Connor.View image in fullscreen

Just how well placed becomes clear as the film, guided by an agile screenplay by writer Justin Kuritzkes (husband of Celine Song, whose directorial debut, Past Lives, also, coincidentally, features a love triangle), deftly volleys back and forth between timelines. Rewinding 13 years to 2006, we meet all three as promising junior players. Art and Patrick have been friends since childhood, on top of the world having just carried off a doubles trophy. But Tashi is in a different league. The boys watch her play for the first time, an apex predator in a kicky little tennis skirt. And they struggle to tear their eyes away from her to follow the ball. Later, when they meet her for the first time at a party held in her honour, she tells them: “Tennis is a relationship.” A piano motif – uneasy, excitable, off-balance – leaves us with no doubt about what kind of relationship she means. A smouldering hotel room scene, reminiscent of a pivotal moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, further seals the deal.

Music is a potent force throughout. When the blood is up, on the tennis court or elsewhere, prowling, pulse-racing techno thunders on the score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), an instantly thrilling jolt of adrenaline. It’s an assertive, almost aggressive musical decision, but then perhaps the film-making choices need to be big and bold, if only to match the oversized egos of the ultra-competitive and manipulative central characters. The camera, caught in the crossfire as the tension between the three builds, is so involved in the climactic match between Art and Patrick that it shoots from the perspective of the ball at one point. The dividing line between sporting clash and romantic rivalry is blurred to the extent that it no longer exists. The sex is like tennis: fierce, combative bouts in which there will always be a winner and a loser. And the tennis, ultimately, is like sex: an ecstatic consummation between two perfectly matched people at their glistening physical peak.

  • In UK cinemas now