Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Playing Doubles: CHALLENGERS

In Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino puts his usual obsessive attention to sensual detail to use in a hard-charging sports picture twisted around a juicy relationship drama. Its first shots find sweat dripping in slow-motion off the faces of its main competitors—one-time friends who are now rivals in a tournament. One (Mike Faist) is a wealthy tennis pro; the other is a struggling wild card (Josh O’Connor). When they were teenagers, they both had a crush on the same rising tennis star (Zendaya). Their paths merged and diverged over a decade. One dated her. The other married her. An elaborately structured screenplay volleys between timelines, stretching what a lesser effort might make the climactic match across all two-hours of the film while sketching in the details of their criss-crossed, intertwined romantic lives. Guadagnino makes of this his usual tale of romantic obsessions and lustful appetites marveling at what the human body can do. His camera drinks in the physical beauty of his stars, while his style swoops and zooms and cuts with an ecstatic aesthetic. It has the precision scrambling chronology, snappy dialogue, and the techno-momentum of a pulsating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, which lends the film some of the surface cool of The Social Network. It also has talented young actors effortlessly embodying suggestive body language in a screenplay of crackling dialogue that bops and zips with repartee that might as well be tennis balls.

Guadagnino’s investment in sexual tension has the film sizzling and throbbing on a different wavelength. His films are always attuned to an intimacy of touch and the suspense of lingering looks—one doesn’t make the yearning romance of Call Me By Your Name or the tingling pool-side thriller of A Bigger Splash without a keen sense of physical and emotional textures. In Challengers, that’s all compounded the sheer physical exertion of a sports movie sends pulsing energy through its teasing, tense love triangle that wraps itself into knots of jealousies and frustrations that are professional, romantic, and athletic all at once. Each sizzling interaction plays like a dramatic volley across the net, complications arising with the regular sensation of a serve and a score. Zendaya plays a steely ref between the competitors, complicated by her own thwarted career aims sublimated into her husband’s. For their part, the guys are complicated, fascinating figures, too—by turns preening and pathetic and always carrying a capacity for physical prowess. Here’s a movie about three fascinating people driven by their appetites—for each other, for winning, and for whatever success feels like. They end up manipulating themselves as much as others. The way the characters shift and share and shame across the run time, refracted through the competition animating the sequences, are finely-tuned drama. When Guadagnino goes hard on the style—taking his camera on a tennis-ball-view or slowing down to watch every rippling muscle twitch or secret speechless message—it takes the sensational drama all the farther. It’s entirely an invigorating, enlivening experience. Where most modern melodramas trend toward the plodding, here’s one that dances.

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