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  • Jennifer Green

Challengers: Love from the Tennis Movie Playbook (AWFJ)

The final climactic scenes of Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers track an epic court battle between two professional tennis players, Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor). The story follows them as childhood best friends coming up in the world of pro tennis whose relationship is complicated by their love for the same woman, frustrated tennis star Tashi (Zendaya). Their own obvious mutual attraction adds another level of homoerotic friction. You’d expect nothing less from the director of Call Me by My Name.


In the final sequence, the three-way pent-up tension explodes on the tennis court. Representing a potential resolution to on- and off-court rivalries, Guadagnino infuses the battle with layers of emotional turmoil that are paralleled visually in the match. He covers the two men in sweat while cool Zendaya observes from the sidelines, though her uncertainty rises with each smack of the ball. All of this is set to a pulsating techno beat, composed by Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor, reminiscent of 90s-era German thriller Run Lola Run.


Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom films the final scenes as if the camera were inside the balls ricocheting over the net, attached to players sprinting back and forth across the baseline, and hovering far above as well as seemingly underneath the court floor. All of these angles and perspectives build up to a fantastical final moment where one man leaps into the air and… well, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t yet watched, but suffice it to say that the audience in the theater where I saw the movie literally screamed at the film’s close and left the dark room laughing and buzzing.


When was the last time you saw a tennis movie inspire that kind of response? The answer is never.

But that doesn’t mean Challengers is entirely new as far as tennis movies go. In fact, the film pulls quite a few ideas from the existing tennis movie playbook, including a classic scene from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.


As anyone who plays tennis will tell you, every match holds drama, suspense, a little comedy and a lot of passion. That’s why tennis works so well as a visual metaphor in films of any genre.


Continue reading at AWFJ.org.


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