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‘Challengers’ sizzles with bubbling ferocity

Katie Walsh – Tribune News Service (TNS)

By the time Luca Guadagnino’s erotically charged tennis film “Challengers” reaches its breathless, sweaty, pulse-pounding and deeply satisfying climax, you’ll be reaching for a cigarette, so to speak. Rarely is a film so sensorially captivating, every element of cinema, including script, cinematography, editing, score and performance blending together to create such a fizzy, frenzied brew, a chemical reaction of rage and lust sizzling with bubbling ferocity.

“Challengers” is a movie about bodies: sexy, strong, scarred bodies; bodies in glorious motion, crumpling under force, and drawn together over space and time, again and again. During a hard-fought match at a New Rochelle tournament, our players — which include the two men on the court and one woman, spectating on the sidelines — engage in body talk, communicating with gestures, glances, grunts and gasps, expressing what’s been left unsaid between them.

It’s the ultimate example of the concept that tennis isn’t just hitting a ball, it’s a relationship. This bit of wisdom was espoused by teen tennis phenom Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) 13 years prior to this match; now she watches this relationship unfold as two men smash the ball back and forth in front of her. They are her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), and her ex, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). Art is a honed, sculpted god, taped, gelled and optimized under Tashi’s watchful eye; Patrick is a grungy tennis bum, sleeping in his car, scamming sandwiches off sympathetic officials, and places to crash on Tinder. Over the course of each set, we’ll come to understand the complex relationship between this trio.

The script is the debut of playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes, who happens to be married to Celine Song, Oscar nominated this year for her debut feature, “Past Lives,” which also features a woman caught between two men, weighing passionate connection against pragmatic concerns. Where Song’s film was about the power and beauty of silence and patience, Kuritzkes’ script is hyperactive, the characters smart, cutting and acerbic, simultaneously deeply romantic and cynical. On a structural level, the screenplay can’t stop moving either. The central tennis match serves as a framing device for a series of flashbacks starting with the characters’ summer before college and covering every angst-ridden tangle in between.

But it’s Guadagnino’s filmmaking that elevates the material to truly transcendent heights. The film is shot with crisp, epic clarity by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, whose camera continually draws triangles between our players, and collaborates brilliantly with editor Marco Costa, who cuts in time with the throbbing techno score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The match starts with extreme wide shots, mannered and removed, before the camera swoops in on Tashi as the beat drops, zeroing in on the woman for whom these men have always been competing. But as we come back to the match, again and again, the camera gets closer to Art and Patrick, becoming erratic and experimental. By the end, we’re seeing shots from the point of view of the players, the court and even the ball, wildly flying back and forth across the net, batted around like every person in this triangle has been by the others at some point.

It’s through this tennis metaphor that Kuritzkes and Guadagnino explore the way power, desire and ambition are woven throughout intimate relationships in a fetishistic way. The ruthlessly professional Tashi seems to get off on psychologically and sexually controlling Art and Patrick, which the chaotic Patrick resists and to which Art happily submits. Their marriage is one of his surrender to her wishes as an act of pure love and devotion, even though she is helplessly drawn to Patrick’s dancing, destructive flame. The sexually omnivorous and opportunistic Patrick, for all his indecision, sees the situation clearly, but then again, they all seem to. They just want what they want.

Guadagnino is one of our greatest auteurs of desire, especially the forbidden kind, and “Challengers” is a deeply erotic and sexy movie even though it doesn’t have all that much sex. Like everything else — conversation, arguments, catharsis — the sex is subsumed into tennis. Still, it is an incredibly lusty film, and it’s rare to enjoy this kind of explosive screen chemistry among all three performers.

Faist, who comes from theater and dance, moves with beautiful intention, and Mukdeeprom’s camera regards his every angle with fascination. In contrast, O’Connor embodies the kind of louche, grimy and utterly dangerous sexuality that most women find infuriating and irresistible. Zendaya is as enthrallingly intelligent, mysterious and unpredictable as she has ever been, and it’s easily her best performance.

“Challengers” is the kind of sexy, engrossing somewhat twisted romance we don’t see enough of these days, a thrilling film, thrillingly rendered in its layered storytelling expressed in the purest cinematic form. Take advantage while you can.

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‘CHALLENGERS’

4 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity)

Running time: 2:11

How to watch: In theaters April 26

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©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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