How ‘Challengers’ Reinvents The Love Triangle

Three isn’t always a crowd. In fact, in the case of Luca Guadagnino Challengers, it’s the foundational formula for one of the horniest sports movies ever committed to the screen. When clips of the Justin Kuritzkes-penned drama began to trickle online last year, a consensus was drawn. Soaked in sweat and throbbing synth beats, sporting hunks grunting their way through a hard-court showdown as a bobbed-up Zendaya watched on, this tennis drama wasn’t really about tennis. In fact, its athleticism and setting – a high-pressure environment that breeds aggression, ambition, and chiseled physiques – was just a tool for hammering out the finer aspects of a storytelling trope that’s been done to death on-screen.

The love triangle has been a plot device favored in everything from Greek mythos to 90s rom-coms, Shakespearean tragedies and CW-housed teen soap operas. It’s most bare-bones, heterosexual interpretation is two men duking it out for the affection of the same woman, but over the years, cinema has toyed with that premise. Some films, like the 90s thriller Wild Things, use the framework to sexualize female women for a male character’s gratification. Others, like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, use the story structure to pit anti-heroes against one another, reveling in themes of betrayal, revenge, and the pursuit of power.

But Challengers, a story about three toxically co-dependent athletes whose emotional growth has been stunted by their insular profession, leaving them perpetually horny (and angry about it), is a different animal. It’s not the first love triangle to explore Queerness – see last year’s Passengers and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien as examples there. Nor is it a film that uses its metaphorical shape to glut itself with sex scenes meant to shock and awe audiences – see The Dreamers, Spring Breakers, Savages.

Instead, Kuritzkes’ tale is a love story that begs a laughably straightforward yet refreshingly revolutionary question: What if all three sides of a cinematic love triangle touched? What if, through the lens of a performance-based profession, one built on rules, routine, and self-regulation, we contemplated the inherit instability of love, especially when it involves wanting more than one person?
“What’s true about a love triangle is that every love triangle is, by its nature, queer,” Kuritzkes told Variety of the film’s premise. “Whether you intend to be or not, you’re in an intimate relationship with two other people.”

While Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, a prodigiously talented tennis player whose star is on the rise at the beginning of Guadagnino’s film, is the fulcrum on which Challengers’ plot rests, the intimate relationship audiences are first introduced to is that of Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist). Friends and on-court partners who’ve grown up together, Patrick and Art’s dynamic is loving… and complicated. Even before they met Tashi, there’s tension and familiarity in the way they touch and rib each other, a constant push-and-pull that speaks to their competitive nature and their yearning for the others’ approval. When the pair have an orgasmic romantic epiphany watching Tashi decimate an opponent on the court, they do so while embracing each other. Gripped thighs, backs encased in casually-thrown arms, sexual innuendos involving tennis racquets – their hunger, for Tashi, for the greatness she possesses, is always shared.

It’s only when Tashi accepts their invitation to insert herself into their relationship that the dynamic changes – not necessarily because of jealousy, but because she pushes them to confront hidden parts about themselves. Perched on a rock overlooking the water, Tashi is the siren luring their friendship – in its current form – to its doom.

When she visits their hotel room, pulling uncomfortable truths about past girlfriends (or the lack thereof) and pubescent explorations, their bond begins to fray. It’s easy to see that, while Patrick seems to be more at ease with the fluid nature of his sexuality, Art is resistant to experimentation. That contrast pops up when discussing the boys’ game as well. Patrick is wild, uncontained energy on the court, clawing for every point, chasing down every ball, and acing opponents with what may be the technically ugliest serve depicted on screen. Art, meanwhile, is all controlled patience, content to wait for his winning moment instead of actively pursuing it. Neither player sees tennis the way Tashi does – as a relationship between two people on a court who perfectly understand each other for a fleeting moment in time – but then, neither man sees the reality of their relationship the way she does either. It’s what compels her to seduce the pair into a makeout session that ends with her playing voyeur to their unleashed physical desires. It’s also why she dangles herself as the reward for whoever wins their next match. In some ways, Tashi sees Patrick and Art more clearly than they do themselves, understanding that, while they’re happy to coast on their talent on the court, and aimlessly tread water in their relationship off it, their shared desire for her might unlock something greater in them both.

While Guadagnino flirts with positioning Art and Patrick as true rivals, every scene that sees them battling over Tashi or tennis carries an undercurrent of unrequited (or unrealized) lust. They’re chugging protein smoothies and deep-throating bananas, backhanding each other’s genitals and manspreading on the steamed planks of a two-person sauna. They’re drowning in sweat and stripping their clothes at some backwoods tennis tournament put on by a tire store. In a scene that may just be the spiritual on-screen successor to Barry Keoghan’s now legendary bathwater slurping moment in Saltburn, the pair chomp each others sugared churros while tussling over Art’s manipulative attempts to cause a rift in Patrick’s relationship with Tashi. Instead of upsetting him, Art’s vicious longing – for Patrick’s girlfriend, his game, maybe even Patrick himself – only arouses the struggling pro, proving what he’s always known to be true, that Art is just as dirty and hungry as he is.

Repressed desire is a theme of Kuritzkes’ love triangle. It’s why he chose tennis as the sport to facilitate its evolution. “Tennis is about being all alone, and being at a distance from somebody, and trying not to touch them. It’s a very repressed sport,” he told Variety. “The point is no contact. The point is to just miss the other person. To me, that’s almost like a Victorian romance. It’s very sexy. So tennis, of its nature, is erotic, and you usually play tennis against somebody of the same gender. So tennis, by its nature, then becomes almost homoerotic.” That sentiment mirrors how both O’Connor and Faist chose to interpret the friendship between Patrick and Art – and their eventual throupling with Tashi.

“He is the least talented out of the three in terms of the sport itself, the least secure,” Faist said of Art to The Advocate. “So he is attracted to these people, these two who are so secure in who they are. There’s kind of this quality that he does not possess. He can’t help but be attracted to that, to the point of, I always say, to want to consume them is the truth of the matter.”

But it’s not just Art longing for things he can’t have in the film. Patrick’s Tinder-swiping for a nightly place to sleep reveals the absence of real intimacy in his life. He’s in a locker room filled with other pros, but all alone in this world, inferring that he yearns for what he had with a former teammate who he obviously still thinks about. Tashi’s focus on Art’s career once her own is prematurely ended by injury borders on obsession. It’s why she’s willing to risk her marriage and professional reputation to bribe an opponent to lose in order to bolster her husband’s confidence. Well, it’s part of the reason. Her brief interludes with Patrick over the years – at swanky bars and in the backseat of his beat-up SUV – demonstrate the lack of passion in her life. She craves a challenge, to be tested, to be pushed, to compete again. Patrick gives her that when Art cannot or will not.

In Challengers, no one’s motivations run a clear line from point A to point B. Tashi doesn’t just want Art, or Patrick. She wants tennis – damn good tennis that resembles that relationship she’s been missing ever since she left the sport. And she knows she can experience it again by pushing the men she loves to be better than what they are. Art doesn’t just want Tashi, or to beat Patrick. He wants to be desired the way those two desire each other, to be free like his friend, to be of worth like his wife. And Patrick doesn’t just want to come between Art and Tashi, he wants to embed himself there, to become a permanent angle in this shape they’ve been orbiting for most of their lives. Whether any of that happens or not after the final point is played is up for interpretation, but it’s the idea that a love triangle on film can be used to explore the desires of three people in equal measure that makes Challengers so damn interesting.