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Game, set, brilliance: How Luca Guadagnino’s distinct vision dominates Challengers

4 min read
UK Box Office Challengers

Image: © Amazon MGM Studios

Coming away from watching is an exciting and varying experience for every audience member. Some revel in the leading trio's relationship dynamics, others begin pumping the brilliant dance-inspired score, and the rest wonder how it managed to tell such a deeply interwoven story. One thing is true for all though—everyone remembers the rampant tension in the final act. Director is renowned for his captivating choices in film and he's all the better for it. But how did he give Challengers the special twist it needed to become such a phenomenon, leaving audiences breathless long after the final point is played? 

The film follows three people, tied together by one constant: . Tashi Duncan () is a former tennis prodigy turned coach, who helped her husband Art Donaldson () become a champion. However, Art has lost focus, so she enters him into a challenger tournament to beat his losing streak. There, he must face Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), his ex-best friend and Tashi's ex-boyfriend.

Infusing Challengers with his signature visual genius, Guadagnino elevated a fantastic screenplay by to the lofty heights it was always meant to achieve. The script didn't necessarily demand the amount of creative agency Guadagnino employed, but his choices certainly didn't feel out of place. 

Intense close-ups are frequently used throughout Challengers by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. This helps display the raw emotions on the characters' faces as they experience friction in their relationships with each other, particularly during high-pressure tennis matches. By placing the audience directly in the players' perspective, Guadagnino emphasises the mental and emotional toll that competition takes on the characters and mirrors the complexities of the love triangle. The director also employs the use of point-of-view shots to immerse the audience in the perspectives of Art and Patrick. This allows viewers to see first-hand the stakes they have at play, as well as making the match more intense to watch. 

A picture of the poster of the movie, to support the Challengers film review, that shows Zendaya as the character Tashi Duncan watching a tennis match

Kuritzkes told IndieWire that Challengers emerged from a desire to know what is happening behind the scenes of tennis matches and what is at stake for both players. Receiving that context for Art and Patrick pushes home further why both of them make the decisions they do, and it is through these close-up shots audience members can see their minds whirring.

Blurring the lines between the physicality of the sport and the turmoil brewing within Art and Patrick, plus Zendaya who watches from the sidelines, is executed seamlessly through these shots. This technique heightens the tension, letting all the characters' foibles spill onto the court. But it also offers an honest and deep empathy for each character, seemingly making it more difficult to pinpoint a villain. 

Priding himself on his characters always belonging to a “sense of truth”, Guadagnino feels central protagonists and antagonists should be relatable. Call Me By Your Name is a good example of this, in the sense that the characters feel like they could be lifted off-screen and placed in the real world, with real motivations and fears. The same phenomenon can be seen in Challengers. There is no good and evil, only real. Guadagnino helped Kuritzkes strengthen the love triangle in a final draft of the script, making “all the corners touch” as he put it, which ultimately would have led to the complete elimination of any villain concept. 

Guadagnino has described cinema as a language and dismantled the idea of directors having a style, telling IMDb: “The idea of style has always been alien to me. I hope not to have a style, I hope that what I do comes across as a spoken language”. Slow motion plays a heavy role in the final act as part of this language. Watching Art and Patrick play through their set's final points is nail-biting, partly due to the choices made in the editing room. Guadagnino and editor Marco Costa purposefully draw out the looks exchanged between the three key players, allowing the tension to simmer and finally bubble to the surface.

Slow motion, combined with fast cuts, creates a rhythm that serves as a reminder of what the pair are really playing for. This editing style mimics the frantic pace of a competitive tennis match, with bursts of intense action punctuated by moments of agonising suspense. The slow-motion becomes a tool to dissect these pivotal moments, amplifying the weight of each glance and building towards a climax that is both physically thrilling and psychologically resonant. 

This film bends genres. Defined as a romantic drama, it has all the etchings of these genres but is injected with the intensity associated with sport. Taking such a familiar genre to us and electrifying it in this way is what makes Challengers particularly special. Guadagnino takes audiences on a unique journey with his distinctive method of thematic exploration, experimenting with several different perspectives. Obvious highlights all occur within the same 15 minutes as Art and Patrick battle it out for their final points. 

Challengers is about the “game of life and love”, says Guadagnino. Focusing on the twisted dynamic between relationships and power, the fractures between Tashi, Art and Patrick are palpable. But the director's choices make these bitter disputes all the more nuanced and believable. Each character's vulnerability shines through and transforms how audiences see these people. This can only be achieved by direction such as Guadagnino's: energetic and distinctive.