All’s Fair in Love and Tennis

All’s Fair in Love and Tennis May 14, 2024

Portrait of Hugo Tilghman (1924) by Abraham Ángel Source: Picryl Public Domain

Challengers (2024) satisfies. The actors perform admirably. I don’t know much about tennis, but the CGI tennis ball POV shots, smashing around here and there, kept me excited. No doubt Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s droning electronic score helped. It seemed to me a story of vain decadence and self-sabotage. Everyone is rich. Everyone is ambitious. No one has any real problems. Luca Guadagnino shines a spotlight on three of the most empty, self-interested people ever to walk this earth. I don’t think that’s what he was going for. But their constant vexations amused me; they seemed, almost like in a Fassbinder movie, to exist for my discomfort and, ultimately, entertainment.

Ostensibly, Challengers is an erotic dissection of the long-term workings of a throuple. It’s the conservative-ish playmate of the recent spate of articles about wealthy Brooklynite polyamorists. But much like these chattering-class discussions and their subjects, there’s nothing attractive about the relationships in the film. All three main characters are egotistical, sadistic, and oddly inert in their sensuality. I was not rooting for them, nor was I particularly interested in who ended up with whom.

Even if, however, the film fails on its own terms, it succeeds because it touches the simplest nerve, a basic human desire. We like to watch the arrogant get humbled. We enjoy seeing the self-involved forced to confront their own inadequacies. All the better when they’re all doing it to each other, when the vain punish the vain and the prideful attack the prideful.

Of course, the movie is against me on this point, and its ending clearly intends to bring together our three main characters through the game of tennis. They reach a unity not possible for them romantically. Sport sublates the erotic; the sex of the racquet beats, well, actual sex.

Maybe. Or perhaps the movie’s erotic energies are so limited, it can only deliver its final punch through an entirely different medium. Regardless, check out Challengers. It’s never a bad time for a little vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

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