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Courtship rivalry


It is curious that the SAG-AFTRA strikes might have worked in Zendaya’s favour. With its eagerly anticipated release, delayed seven months by the strike, her latest film Challengers is already a box office hit. It appears hot on the heels of another of Zendaya’s starring roles, in the sci-fi blockbuster Dune 2 — Denis Villeneuve’s Frank Herbert adaption which has already netted a haul of $700 million. Zendaya is a renowned icon of style, and her jaw-dropping appearance in that fantastical suit of armour at the Dune 2 London premiere only intensified her powerful draw. It seems Zendaya is no longer simply the Hollywood go-to girlfriend with comedic verve à la Emma Stone in Easy A and her own Spider-man gigs, but at the height of her dramatic powers and star status.

Challengers was directed by Luca Guadagnino, who has released a slew of critically acclaimed films since being hailed as the new Visconte at the 2009 Venice Film Festival with I Am Love. The film is certainly easy on the eye, with its ritzy locations, its tennis matches filmed as you’ve never seen tennis filmed before, and its flirtations with the three leads. Zendaya steams up the screen as Tashi Duncan, with the alluring Josh O’Connor (The Crown) and Mike Faist (Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story) completing this riveting love triangle.

Patrick Zweig (played by O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (played by Faist) begin as the sweetest doubles duo you’ve ever seen, and they have you rooting for them despite the way they turn against each other with betrayals and lies throughout the film’s duration. Patrick is both charming and repulsive but also so naturally comic. It’s hard to believe this is the actor who gave such a composed portrait of the young Prince Charles in The Crown. Patrick is down on his luck and inclined to be unlikeable. In contrast, Art is the irresistible superstar athlete who makes you sympathise with his every pitfall and professional setback.

Rarely has a cinematic trio been so compelling, with their chemistry criss-crossing every which way. But it is when the boys are facing off on the court or buddying up during practice that you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat. The reunion of these old teammates at a challengers’ tournament after almost a decade of estrangement sets the non-linear narrative spinning. The intimate tension hurtles towards a crescendo in a final game that will determine the legacy of each athlete as well as how much faith can be placed in Tashi as a lover and a coach.

The tennis serves as a seductive metaphor in this erotic reimagining of the rom-com. The tangled and obsessive nature of the relationships encased within the love triangle mirrors the sport at the centre of the narrative. And the protagonists do not fit neatly into the romantic or erotic moulds so often presented in mainstream cinema, challenging the audience to expand the ways they think about love and desire. The film’s three stars make such an intimate thing – the life of the body – seem so rich and strange, and well-deserve the accolades they have garnered thus far.

Acclaimed Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom also deserves a mention. The dexterous movement of the camera across geometric lines transforms the tennis court with authoritative and dramatic visual impact.

Watching Challengers, it’s clear Guadagnino does not fluke his moments of brilliance that can sometimes seem improvised and instinctual: think of the horror-inducing ballet in Suspiria and the skies that feel like meditations on the iconography of loneliness in Bones and All. The apparent slide towards commercialism in Challengers is a trick shot, a masterful moment of play made to look like a light-hearted and highly watchable romantic comedy. Its glossiness is a mask for the transgressive intensity of Guadagnino’s vision, and the film remains true to his seriousness of purpose, even rivalling the best films he has made.




Eddie Hampson is a literary and film critic.

Main image: Courtesy of Prime Video

Topic tags: Eddie Hampson, Challengers, Zendaya, Guadagnino



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