Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 26, 2024 5:26 pm 
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Can't we just be friends?

Fundamentally Challengers qualifies as a sports movie, one centered on the game of tennis and developed in a triangular love and a three-way rivalry ending with the traditional climactic game where everything is decided. But because it's Luca Guadagnino back in form, it's exciting, different, and a bit of a tough watch. It may work better on the third viewing - unless you're highly adept at following and decoding sudden, scrambled flashbacks, because it's made up almost entirely of a network of them. Music is something this director is especially good at and attentive to, as he showed very much in HBO's "We Are Who We Are." Here there is a heavy overlay of songs and blasts of loud techno music. The latter stands for two kinds of high energy, of sexual excitement or the thrill of a pro tennis match. For the sake of the movie they may be inseparable: tennis is sex, and being great at tennis is super-sexy. Sometimes the staccato dialogue is almost drowned out by the tunes, just the way sometimes in a tennis match you may not see where the ball went or what kind of shot gained the point.

There are three actors who go through their paces, and they are in championship form in both senses: they are only pretending to be tennis pros, but they are lean and fit enough to be that, and they inhabit their roles seamlessly and intensely. Though also at times with a light touch.

It begins with a big match at the New Rochelle Tennis Club in the present time between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor). Art is a former multiple grand slam winner whose career has declined, and this low level tournament is an attempt to relaunch him. Patrick has never done that well but he is hoping to take off from here. Most of the action comes through multiple flashback points, until the closing scene of the match when it's allowed to ride through to its rather strange end. Something decisive, if indefinable, happens in that match. But Challengers doesn't imply that winning or losing one match can change everything. Or does it? See what you think.

We encounter Patrick and Art as teenagers, promising tennis players and best friends. They've won an important doubles match together. (The two actors look madly young in this sequence.) The way they run around together is comical and fun, and that mood helps lighten later, more serious moments. Now they are watching Tashi (Zendaya) play, and they're in awe. They seem to want to possess her, though they have no right to.

They're more than doubles partners, boarding school roommates, and best friends. They're joined at the hip; they're like brothers, almost twins - perhaps more than that. For indefinable complex reasons, together they dive for Tashi, flirt with her, try to get her number. She knows who they are and refuses, saying she doesn't want to be "a homewrecker" (though they deny that their relationship is like that). These passages are the freshest in the film and seem where Guadagnino is most at home, with the boyishness and sexual confusion. Do Patrick and Art want Tashi or just want to play like her? Or make out with her together, which is more or less what happens?

Whatever happens thereafter, the answer to the question above is emphatically No: they can be rivals, lovers, enemies, but never friends.

Bear in mind that what follows isn't presented chronologically, but in intense flashes we have to reassemble in our minds. In sequences that follow, just when Tashi is peaking, she has a terrible (unspecified) knee injury. She tries to keep playing but her chance at being top seeded is gone, and she gets involved with, then married to, Art, and gives up playing for coaching him. But she also has an affair with Patrick. She and Art have a kid, whose creation and care are barely touched on. Not a total tennis orphan, because there is a grandmother. This isn't about that - or much about anything but music, tennis, and these three people.

In several scenes just prior to the final court battle we find that Patrick no longer even has a working credit card and winds up having to sleep in his car in the New Rochelle Tennis Club parking lot prior to the match. He has never done as well as Art has done working with Tashi and now is unshaven, scruffy, sleepy, and hungry. You won't remember Prince Charles or any kind of English accent whether royal, expat, or Yorkshire. O'Connor's character is a loser but the actor achieves a sexy kind of greasy sheen here that may make him the most memorable character of the three, though as Tashi Zendaya radiates a hard, lean sexiness that cuts like a knife, and as Art, Faist's physicality is commanding. Guadagnino, who excels at the sensual, here seamlessly welds that element to the athletic.

The rapid time shifts and the the loud techno keep you on your toes, and evoke the continually renewed adrenalin rush of a professional tennis match. The overwhelm we may feel parallels lives with big choices dominated by the external force of a competitive sport. The individualism and intensely competitive mood of tennis as a sport - one might say the narcissism and killer instinct - are essential here. At the same time, Challengers isn't about tennis so much as about the confused allegiances and rivalries that dominate these tennis-obsessed lives. An early scene where Art and Patrick are finally in a bedroom together with Tashi has an emblematic shot where she sits at the bottom of the bed with them on either side of her. She draws them toward her and kisses them, but then she draws them toward each other to kiss each other. But they can't share her, and Patrick is excluded. Everything gets messy after that, but Guadagnino and his writer Justin Kuritzkes who also penned his upcoming historical film and putative Burroughs adaptation Queer, present the mess neatly, in capsules, like the order of games and sets of a tennis match. But there is a John McEnroe moment from Patrick here, and we see a record number of rackets thrown and smashed.

Everything about the tennis play in Challengers is fudged a bit, most of all the end of the final match, which goes a tad too slow and uses a smidgen too much slo-mo, though as usual in tennis dramas, the principals must look convincing on the court and in the gear and learned how to serve. As things progress, the tennis becomes more and more turbulent and abstract; at the end the camera appears to be almost attached to the balls. O'Connor and Faist and Zendaya don't have to actually play professional-quality tennis, of course, and the matches are a little twisted and abstract.

At the end, the question is which of the two men will win this final, present-time match. Will it really matter? Tennis isn't great because of who wins. The fun will be putting the pieces of this movie back together. Powerful, wildly energetic material to work with, thanks to the actors, to the director, to the score composers duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and thanks to the dp, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.

Challengers, 131 mins., debuted in many countries April 18, 2024 and thereafter. Watched for this review at Century Hilltop April 26. Metacritic rating: 83%.

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