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MOVIES: Challengers - Review

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Challengers is the exploration of a toxic relationship heightened by the nature of ultra competitiveness at the highest level of Tennis. In Luca Guadagnino’s hands it is far more than just a sport – everything is sex; except sex, which is about Tennis – as the relationship between Tennis player turned coach Tashi and her husband, world-renowned Tennis player Art, is put to the test when they encounter Patrick, a washed-up, would’ve-been-famous Tennis player at a local venue designed to get Art’s confidence back on track. Patrick is Art’s one-time best friend, and Tashi’s one-time boyfriend. Sparks fly instantly between the three as old rivalries reunite; tensions flare – and it turns into one of the best sporting films you’re ever likely to see.

Obsession and desire are at the heart of Challengers, the way the movie is shot you see both Art and Patrick develop both instantly for Tashi – Tashi’s passion for her sport as a ruthless and driven professional is instantly matched by Zendaya’s command of her craft and ability to manipulate both Art and Patrick. She’s not a homewrecker; Tashi says – noticing that the friendship between the two boys is inseparable, played with brilliant chemistry between Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor – lifelong buddies who may or may not have a thing for each other. Yet it can’t stop but headed that way as obsession manipulated both Art and Patrick’s life – they can’t get enough of the competition that it unlocks between the two – the rivalry, and the hatred. Sparks fly – flashbacks punctuate between the film as it jumps all over the place timeline wise but with the skill of a craftsman it’s never hard to keep up. It’s incredible to see Guadagnino label Tennis as a sport that’s boring to watch because the way he directs the sport with such love and affection has him pay the ultimate respect to it: the matches are thrilling and you can’t help be swept up in its magic, backed by a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score that turns the film into overdrive. Not bad; Guadagnino. You’re the Benjamin White of your craft.

Personal growth is key to Challengers, a film that rivals last year’s Passages in its representation of messy entanglements between multiple relationships. The desire is there, the romance is there – the chemistry between Faist and O’Connor is so electric you find yourself questioning whether their characters are in love with each other; and not Tashi. Justin Kuritzkes’ script is smart and intelligent – with Guadagnino able to turn even the most simple of sports scenes which are played like a sports anime into a study of hyper competitiveness as a victim of your own undoing – Tashi’s right, she’s not a homewrecker, it’s the desire for competition that Art and Patrick has that undoes their relationship – the cocky smile that O’Connor gives Faist in the Sauna towards the end of the film is a masterclass in brilliant acting – and a showcase of the human body and how acting is far more than just facial expressions. It’s a complete commitment to the profession by all involved.

Every, and I cannot stress this enough, EVERY time a Tennis ball POV shot happened I was on the edge of my seat expecting the ball to come right out of the screen and whack me in the face. I was not the only one in my cinema who jumped in one scene. It’s the magic of Guadagnino who excels at this – edge of your-seat stuff, not unlike the arrival of a train at La Ciotat by the Lumiere Brothers in 1896 and the effect that would’ve had on the same audience. It’s just an incredible thing to witness by all accounts: the chaos of Tennis as a sport, the rivalry it can bring – passion, desire, obsession, all at once – masterclass.

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