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Structured like a game of tennis, pinging back and forth over a chronological net, Challengers tells the story of three people locked together in an unsavoury menage. A big, panting melodrama of the sort Douglas Sirk would recognise, it’s thrillingly conceived, ingeniously constructed and plays out impressively but overstays its welcome like a tie break that will not deliver a victor. And that’s your lot for tennis metaphors.

It starts at the end, where once-friends and now-rivals Art Donaldson (the solid plugger) and Patrick Zweig (the naturally talented bad boy) are at a tournament playing the game of their lives, though how important that game is won’t become apparent until the film reaches its conclusion and we’re again back at the same tennis match, now entering its final few serves.

In between, back and forth to the story of two lads who have come up together through the tennis academy system and are now embarking on a life on the circuit, rising through the rankings, swapping out junior championships for more senior ones, making money. And then, one day, Art and Patrick clap eyes on Tashi Duncan, hot, talented, clever, sexually precocious and with legs that go all the way to the sky.

Director Luca Guadagnino makes quite a meal of this meeting, the unrolling tongues of both Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor), the eyes on stalks, the way Tashi ignites a rivalry between them which was maybe always there. Tashi, we understand, is a goddess, and since she’s played by Zendaya this is easy to imagine, if you go for slender beauty. If you don’t, both Faist and O’Connor serve up on a plate how grimly, woefully smitten they are.

From here a progress through the years which I will not detail, except to say that Tashi is in the driving seat throughout, in a way that both passes and fails the Bechdel Test – the film appears to be about the guys, with Tashi as the prize, but maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

Art and Patrick talk
Rivals: Art and Patrick

There’s a twisted romance going on in Challengers, but a covert (and sometimes not so covert) bromance too. Much as Art and Patrick are at war over Tashi, maybe they’re really in love with each other. It would explain the strange yelp of victory Tashi gives in the film’s final scene as her two rivals, after slugging it out gladiatorially if intermittently through the entire movie, finally bring out into the open the story that Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes have been telling in shadowplay throughout. And in this other story, Tashi is not the prize but the enemy.

Apart from being way, way, way too long – the story is done with an hour to go – this is a brilliantly chewy movie that’s brilliantly played too. Sexy, dirty, good-looking, emotional, fraught, it has a synthy Europop soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that bounces us through the energetic moments and turns more brooding for when things go dark. It has bright good looks full of youthful promise, when required, and brooding dark ones as lives are squashed and soured dreams start to dominate the lives of all three – the cinematographer is Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who did the astonishingly lush Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for Apichatpong Weerasethakul before hooking up with Guadgnino on Call Me By Your Name.

Since A Bigger Splash got him noticed and Call Me By Your Name gave him a hit (and made Timothée Chalamet a star), Guadagnino has pursued a “Hollywood but my way” course towards directorial superstardom, in the way many a European director in the past did it. Lang, Sirk, Preminger, perhaps even Billy Wilder, they’re all bubbling away in the mix here, in a hugely entertaining (if long) story with a noirishly dark heart.

Challengers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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