Challengers review: Zendaya leads a thrilling, intoxicating and extravagantly sexy tennis psychodrama

Challengers is an extravagantly sexy take on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, kitted up for the modern era. Here, the men don’t duel with swords, but with rackets. The object of their desire isn’t a gentle maiden, but a tennis superstar forced into early retirement by an injury, embittered by her fate and the knowledge she could easily beat them both if given the chance. And the audience cares far less about which of these men will win, than whether they’ll finally realise they are, in fact, deeply in love with each other.

When Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) – in a flashback, and primed to become the next Naomi Osaka – tells the pair of scruffy, bashful fanboys at her feet, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), that tennis “is a relationship”, it sounds a little clichéd. When it’s really good, she adds, you feel like you’re in love. But every teasing frame of Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, with its sweat-locked curls of hair and muscled thighs emerging out of tiny shorts, proves it’s a cliché against which we’re defenceless. Challengers triggers an intoxication.

All three are at a party. Patrick and Art invite Tashi back to their hotel room, where the competition begins. An anecdote about how Patrick taught Art how to masturbate becomes a nervous power struggle, while a three-way make-out session results in two men swept up in denial, and one woman leaning back to enjoy the control she’s able to exert. Challengers’s simple conceit, thrillingly executed, is that every conversation is a tennis match, and every tennis match is a sex scene. The film’s galvanising score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, unifies both.

We don’t meet these three characters at this point in their lives. The film begins years later, with a crash-zoom on Tashi, sitting in the tennis court bleachers, in an homage to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Patrick and Art play. The trio are older now, and entangled in ways we’ll slowly come to understand over the course of the film. But we know immediately that this match holds their entire future in the balance. There’s an elegant lyricism to Justin Kuritzkes’s dialogue here that occasionally bears its claws (Tashi to Patrick: “You have a better shot with a handgun in your mouth”).

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom sets us down in an over-saturated America, so pristine it could descend into a Lynchian nightmare at any given moment. The tennis is shot with formidable emotional urgency. When things are under control, the camera swings across the court in fluid, unbroken shots, at one point adopting the perspective of the ball in play. When that confidence is shattered, Marco Costa’s editing becomes feverish. A key confrontation takes place in a windstorm. It’s a bold but seductive bit of pathetic fallacy.

Guadagnino is a modern master of desire, be it cruel and petty, or desperate and hungry, in A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name, or Bones and All. His work feels like a provocation, not in the sense that he’s out to disturb some perceived establishment, but in the way his films climb into their audience’s hearts and prod at the unseen parts. Tashi has toiled so much more than these two white boys fresh from boarding school, for whom tennis was simply something to fill the hours. Yet now she’s forced to be a witness to their success. Does she love them? Or does it merely please her to see how willingly they’ll submit to her?

Movie star: Zendaya in Guadagnino’s ‘Challengers’ (Warner Bros/MGM)
Movie star: Zendaya in Guadagnino’s ‘Challengers’ (Warner Bros/MGM)

Challengers allows every slow-mo shot of Zendaya’s bouncing curls and her regal posture to further the argument that she could be the one to reverse the death of the movie star. But she grounds Tashi, too, when that hyper-confidence is allowed to falter for a moment, and something raw and ugly slips by. Faist and O’Connor play mildly against type: the West Side Story breakout trades live wire for good boy, while O’Connor weaponises his gentility to play a schemer with a twinkle in his eye. All three of them, together, end up engaged in full-blown psychological warfare. It’s the most gripping sports movie in years.

Dir: Luca Guadagnino. Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist. 15, 131 minutes.

‘Challengers’ is in cinemas from 26 April