How “Challengers” reshuffles the cards of desire and rivalry

“Challengers” is a film by Luca Guadagnino, written by Justin Kuritzkes, which depicts a love triangle against the backdrop of a sporting competition. In the early 2000s, Patrick (Josh O’Connor, who made himself known in the very beautiful God’s own country) and Art (Mike Faist) are two young, fierce tennis players whose unwavering friendship does not prevent them from both falling in love with the same woman, Tashi (played by “Gen Z” star Zendaya). 13 years later, they face each other again in a decisive match. The film intertwines this breathtaking match and the history of the relationships between these three characters.

There is much to say about the cinematographic qualities of “Challengers”: the color of the tennis courts, the beauty of the costumes, the impressive erotic charge carried by the three characters or even the electric soundtrack composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. These composers had produced the remarkable soundtrack for “The Social Network”, this David Fincher film in which the incarnation of Mark Zuckerberg speaks very quickly and quarrels with his best friend during memorable shouting scenes. The director of “Challengers”, Luca Guadagnino, stood out for “Call me by your name” (2017), a film that makes you want to buy a villa in Italy, to learn to read the ancient Greek to his lovers and eating peaches… But that was 100% “bourgeois gauze” and relatively empty. Does “Challengers” fall into the same trap? Certainly not.

The female gaze is at the heart of the film poster

A film that breaks the codes of the love triangle

The promotion of the film, its poster and the images put forward by the production suggest a classic treatment of the love triangle in cinema: an ultra desirable woman, two sympathetic men whose friendship, although deep, does not really resist their desire to possess the one that most often appears – in this cinematic genre – as a mysterious and poisonous creature. This is a bit like what we witness in the classic of French cinema “Jules et Jim”, directed by François Truffaut in 1962: friendship does not resist romantic passion and the woman, the object of so much lust, hesitates and procrastinates, without us really understanding why.

Nudity is never completely gratuitous in the film, it contributes to the understanding of the relationships between the characters.

The male gaze (or “male gaze” in English) in cinema is generally at work when it comes to presenting a love triangle. It is the beauty of the woman which is at the heart of the plot and her inability to choose between the two men (whose point of view we adopt) requires no clear explanation. They are often the ones who, depending on their decisions, will act on the rest of the plot.

For Laura Mulvey, who is considered one of the theorists of the concept of “male gaze”, films which have this characteristic make the man the vector of the gaze and the woman the image towards which this gaze turns. “As the spectator identifies with the male protagonist, he projects his gaze onto that of his fellow man, his substitute on the screen, so that the power of the hero, in that he controls events, coincides with the active power of the erotic gaze, both offering the satisfaction of the feeling of omnipotence. Thus, a male movie star is not attractive because he is the eroticized object of the gaze, but because he has the same characteristics as the idealized ego, more perfect, more complete and more powerful, constructed during of the mirror stadium.” This is how Laura Mulvey explained, in psychoanalytic terms, the process at work.

A male movie star is not attractive because he is the eroticized object of the gaze, but because he has the same characteristics as the idealized ego, more perfect, more complete and more powerful.

Laura Mulvey

We could fear, with “Challengers”, “queer baiting” (which could be translated as “queer bait”), this contemporary trend in series and films which consists of attracting homosexual and “gay friendly” audiences by putting stage homoerotic situations, without real coherence with the scenario (which was accused, a few years ago, of the series “Teen Wolf”, whose male characters spend their time fighting or rescuing each other in a homoerotic way, the t-shirt constantly torn off, without it having the slightest influence on their relationships). We can speak of “queer baiting” when poorly written and implausible homosexual romances seem to appear solely to satisfy the progressive public. This is the case in many contemporary Netflix series, particularly “teenage movies”. But this does not seem to be the case here: the sexualization of male characters has a real interest in showing a sport such as tennis, where the presentation of bodies is of capital importance, but also in understanding the relationship between two men and the one they have with the woman.

When people ask you why you are suddenly interested in tennis

Things don’t work out that way in “Challengers”: to begin with, all three characters are just as sexualized as each other. There is not a single shot in the film where they are not desirable. The two men are just as, if not more, naked on screen than the character played by Zendaya, and their bodies are not shown as male bodies are usually shown, let alone sporty, in the cinema: not only are their breaks more sensual than dominant, but the camera films parts of the male body that we are not necessarily used to seeing in the cinema (Mike Faist’s buttocks, Josh O’Connor’s legs, but also their necks, shoulders and back ). They are objects of desire, and not just subjects. Therefore, they are not the only actors in the action. They too are subject to the decisions of the character played by Zendaya, who is also filmed as a woman of power (her confident approach, her ability to plan matches and anticipate them, her assertive tone, etc.).

The friendship between Patrick and Art is charged with desire and mutual admiration, which complicates the love triangle (or rather makes it whole, and not just ordered around the woman), but Tashi’s view of them is one of a great importance. The “feminine gaze” is fully exercised, in “Challengers”, on the bodies of men. In the love triangle, the character played by Zendaya is neither passive nor mysterious: she is fully involved in the action and her motives, sometimes contradictory, remain no less clear. She is not a mysterious and elusive creature, as decades of cinema – particularly French – have represented women.

Historians will say they were “good friends”

Rivalry in the service of friendship and desire

Our three early champions begin different journeys, driven by the same desire: to win and become champions. Here again, one could believe in a traditional sports film, where talent and ambition will be put to the test of tenacity and feelings. But in “Challengers”, no fierce training scene against the backdrop of “Eye of the Tiger”. No endless monologues on the values ​​of sport and work. Our three characters play tennis because it is what they do best, but all question, in their own way, its purpose.

The film also confuses our expectations, as spectators, about how a match will unfold. Usually, the emotion aroused by the representation of sport is that of the expectation of victory. We choose our side, then we hope. We suffer with the one we have chosen, we curse our rival for his low blows and his master strokes. But that’s not what happens when you watch “Challengers.” Since the film values ​​the two main rivals so much – both aesthetically and psychologically – we constantly wish for the good and success of each.

Competition without domination, rivalry without the desire to crush: it seems to me that by putting an end to sexist representations of the male psyche, “Challengers” contributes to dusting off male friendship.

It seems that the vision of sport and rivalry conveyed by the film is not underpinned by violence and domination. On the contrary, could the rivalry depicted in the film not be another modality of desire and love?

Tashi Duncan (played by Zendaya) is the most pragmatic and rational character in the film, going against the common representation of the woman as a “mysterious creature”

Competition without domination, rivalry without the desire to crush: it seems to me that by putting an end to sexist representations of the male psyche, “Challengers” contributes to dusting off male friendship. Currently, this mode of relationship is often tinged with a fear of proximity (out of homophobic defiance), denigration and mutual belittling (“trolling”). In “Challengers”, even in the context of sporting rivalry, and undoubtedly thanks to it, friendship takes a deep and warm turn. In the same spirit, and even though Zendaya is an actress (and producer of the film) who embodies many capitalist values ​​of femininity (both from the point of view of the plastic demands that she reflects and the continual emphasis, all throughout the film and in its promotion, major fashion brands), his character acts as an equal, even superior, towards men, who are objects of desire and target of his desire for control.

Behind its touted poster and the perpetual product placement it features, “Challengers” is part of a movement of transformation of the traditional vision of desire, love and friendship.


Nicolas Framont


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