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Challengers (Luca Guadagnino, 2024)

Tennis is an intimate duel defined by the prohibition of touch. Each point involves a dance across a 78-foot court, with players responding to each other’s every movement, forming an improvised choreography that culminates in one of two ways: an error or a winner. Challengers—Luca Guadagnino’s tennis love triangle—draws out the tensions that underlie this dramatic setup.

The film unfolds over the course of a challenger-level match between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), held in New Rochelle ahead of the 2019 U.S. Open. Thirteen years earlier, the two were junior-level doubles partners, singles opponents, and best friends who both pined for Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a rising star on the girl’s circuit. Now, Art and Tashi are married and have a kid, and Tashi, after suffering a career-ending injury, is Art’s coach, pushing him to complete a Career Grand Slam. Patrick, broke and struggling to reach the sport’s top tier, has fallen out with both. The progression of this single match structures the plot of the film, with flashbacks revealing how the relationships among the three coalesced and dissolved over the years.

Guadagnino recently claimed in an interview that he found tennis “boring,” a result of its “undynamic” and “objective” presentation. Professional tennis matches are typically captured through an overhead camera hoisted several feet above the serving player. The whole court is in view: the server is shown from the back, while the returner on the far side of the court faces the camera. Occasionally, the camera shifts to court level and zooms in momentarily on the movements of a single player, producing a jarring proximity. The player’s body—which can appear lanky and small in the overhead view—assumes a daunting physicality. Muscles glisten, sweat drips, and the stroke of the arm propels the ball forward at over 100 miles per hour. If, for a second, you ever believed you could be a pro, the close-up quickly dispels that fiction.

Challengers cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom transcends these two limiting perspectives. The camera volleys us among various vantage points: we shuttle across the court along with the ball; we fly above the match, watching Art and Patrick whack the ball from a bird’s-eye view; we move with the players themselves, breathing heavily while crossing paths during a side change. We even watch alongside Tashi, sitting at the center of the court, level with the net, in one of the worst seats in the stands: if she were looking straight ahead, she would only see the ball gliding back and forth over the net, a view devoid of human activity. Her pristine bob swishes from side to side as she turns her head to keep up with the action. But this seat also makes Tashi the center of attention, even from the sidelines. She is at an equal distance from both competitors—her current husband and her on-again, off-again lover—and can make direct eye contact with either. The choice she makes ultimately alters the course of the game.

Set to a synth-heavy soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the focal match is electric and unpredictable (even when the actual quality of the tennis is poor). Justin Kuritzkes’s script brings the emotional essence of the sport to the fore: racquet-smashing meltdowns, on-court self-sabotageheated quarrels with the umpire, desperate glances at the players’ box, and rivalries that mirror romances—these dramas are why we watch tennis. Art and Patrick are partners and adversaries, mutually dependent yet with each constantly striving to edge out the other. Tashi understands this erotic duality better than anyone. “For about 15 seconds there . . . it was like we were in love,” she says early in the film, reflecting on a match in which she demolished her opponent in a quick two sets. Her arrival in the boys’ lives disrupts their dynamic.

The building tension between the players is consistently frustrated by their physical separation—a basic rule of the sport. In the film’s extended final scene, which dwells on the match’s deciding tiebreak, Patrick and Art are sweaty, exhausted, and hungry for more. After an iconic pre-service tease, their furious baseline rally moves closer to the net. Soon, the pair trade volleys back and forth in a laughter-filled rhythm, the distance between them rapidly shrinking. At last, Patrick breaks the exchange, lobbing the ball into the air. When Art leaps to retrieve it, you imagine he’ll do what any other tennis player would do, and smash it onto Patrick’s court—or into his body. But instead, the ball almost disappears from view. Art falls over the net, landing on his ex-friend and nemesis in an embrace. No matter that touching the net is against the rules, no matter that it wasn’t even match point. The game has been settled.

Sanoja Bhaumik is a writer and the managing editor of Phenomenal World.