Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” Merges Film Theory with Visual Artistry | Film Review

"Challengers" blends tennis with cinema theory, exploring relationships and visual storytelling in Luca Guadagnino's unique style.


Challengers (2024)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Tashi, once a tennis prodigy whose career was cut short by an injury, is now a coach, guiding her husband Art, a tennis champion in crisis. Art faces his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend, Patrick, in a minor tournament. Amidst this triangle entwined with past and present, Tashi contemplates the true cost of victory.

To paraphrase André Bazin – leaping back over Serge Daney, who would be too obvious to mention here – today there are directors who still believe in cinema and those who just make films. Luca Guadagnino has always belonged to the former, a shrinking category (not a complaint: that’s just how it is these days in the world of film, or rather, audiovisual media), but also an increasingly vital one for understanding the land of images. Believing in cinema – out of love and honor, knowledge and understanding, living with and through it – means not just making films that are cinematic (as opposed to merely films) but, especially today, making films that remind us what cinema can uniquely do – cinematically – with images, words, sounds, music. Particularly now, when the competition from “other” images and other ways of translating life into images is fierce and often successful (and we’re not complaining about that).

All this to say, Challengers, written by Justin Kuritzkes (who also penned Guadagnino’s new project, Queer, based on a novel by William S. Burroughs), doesn’t trivially use tennis (and sport) as a metaphor to discuss life & love (everything is a game, you win, you lose, etc.), but rather (and Daney would have appreciated this), uses tennis as a framework for making cinema (and talking about cinema). Not just, as has been said, because the two share a sense of time becoming duration, and more precisely, time becoming action, gesture, event. Guadagnino – and this is all directorial work – multiplies interactions and exchanges, transforms the court into a set (the terminological affinities are much more than coincidental, and worth revisiting) and plays its two halves, defined by a line as distinct as it is fragile (as demonstrated in the film’s last shot), as a perfect, real and symbolic paradigm of the relationship between the onscreen and offscreen. Challengers is a theory of cinema in action and the action of cinema, i.e., a theory of reality becoming cinema – “Are we still talking about tennis?”, the characters ask themselves more than once. Moreover, what else is that head in the stands – of Tashi Duncan/Zendaya, stationed at the net line from start to finish, amid many flashbacks –, a head that rhythmically rotates from one side of the court to the other (yet free to stop looking), if not a device that decisively dictates what is seen and what is not – what becomes cinema and what does not? No other sport comes as close to cinema in terms of geometry, prohibitions, dialectics between the visible and the invisible, oppositions, dualisms. Like in cinema, a story is told face to face: tennis, Tashi explains, is a relationship. It is, at least, when it’s great tennis (and great cinema).

Another aspect Guadagnino explores through tennis is precisely the relational and, more specifically, melodramatic aspect. It all begins thus, with the logic of tennis dictating the rules of romantic play in a hotel room: Tashi, from the perfect center of a scene that will become her life, positions for the first time the bodies and desires of Patrick/Josh O’Connor and Art/Mike Faist, keeping them both apart and to herself, making them cross the line that defines their friendship (the very last shot of the film brings us back to this moment, the beginning of everything). Challengers is not a triangle (though it is easy to define it as such), not in the sense of The Dreamers or Doom Generation – or, further back in time, Jules and Jim and Bande à part – films that resonate in the distance. In Challengers, the oscillation of love is not merely the geometry of desire, the shifting of planets and forces, but rather, an exercise in controlling another’s body and will. When Tashi explains to the young Patrick and Art that tennis is, can be, and indeed should be a relationship, she implies that along with the violent, passionate, and always somewhat definitive delivery of a ball to the other half of the court runs a fatal desire for union and dominion (they will learn, from her, at their expense). Deciding for another where they will go – right or left, backcourt or net – how much they will have to run, which arm they will use to respond. Deciding over another’s body, moving it, and watching it move. The melodramatic root of Challengers lies entirely in this remote control, embodied and exercised perfectly by Tashi, and in the logic not of exclusion but of exclusivity of the field: one side or the other, one body or another. Always knowing who and what remains in the half that isn’t being watched.

The performance of the camera complements and enhances all this, blending tele-direction – observant, distanced, tracking bodies in motion – with an erotic, melodramatic closeness that traverses the same bodies, always three, to narrate other movements, other feelings. In a constant, virtuosic variation of perspective – sometimes using extreme solutions, like the “transparent” tennis court filmed from below, the physicality of GoPros, and the ball’s point of view – Challengers does not merely show tennis as we’ve never seen it before. Indeed, it’s not simply a “film about tennis”; rather, the film plays (and enjoys doing so, unafraid and without pretense) with delivering to the screen new ways to capture and transcribe the speed of bodies in action, the execution of gestures, the connection between gaze and action that is, ultimately, in that focused eye relentlessly tracking a moving object (the theory of cinema, precisely). Those who write (many, too many) that Guadagnino has indulged in too many slow motions and accelerations, missing the essence of the “exercise” he subjects cinema itself to, overlook the often risky attempt to synchronize gaze and action, camera gesture and bodily figures, scores and emotions, up to that last half-hour of the film that strays somewhere – thrillingly – between visual performance, experimental cinema, and visual symphony (and what a music video!). Guadagnino, indeed, still believes (and deeply so) in cinema, in a manner both ancient and thoroughly modern. And Challengers is pure cinema, true cinema. And yes, we are also talking about tennis, of course, always and only about tennis.

Luca Malavasi

Cineforum, April 26, 2024


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976) | Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael lauds “Carrie” for Brian De Palma’s masterful horror-comedy blend, Sissy Spacek’s stellar performance, and the film’s thrilling, trashy charm and innovative style.

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!