Out of the Celluloid Closet

Chaotic bisexual energy is the foundation of Challengers

(L to R) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

The horny psychological thriller is back. Over the course of the past week, Challengers – the movie everyone and their mom is talking about – received it’s delayed, much-anticipated wide release. The two-hour-long movie tells the story of professional tennis champion Art (Mike Faist) who is gearing up to make a return to the court, thanks to the help of his coach and wife, Tashi (Zendaya). Playing him at a Challenger event is Patrick (Josh O’Connor), whose status as a player has gone from a one-to-watch to a relative unknown. In the past, the two boys vyed for Tashi’s affections, resulting in a tumultuous love triangle which serves as the foundation of the movie. Over the course of the past year, teasers suggested a ménage à trois of sorts, sparking excitement for the film. In general, Challengers has been well received, despite some debates regarding the sexuality and representation in the film. But half the fun of Challengers is the will-they-or-won’t-they aspect, which manifests in the form of parasocial sexual tension. 

In the present-day sequences, it’s 2019, and Tashi is married to Art. She’s coached him, elevating his status from a subpar tennis player to a US Open champion. They first met in 2006, when Art and Patrick won the boys’ junior doubles title at the US Open. The two invite Tashi to their hotel room, where they both kiss Tashi and, later, each other. Tashi shuts down the activity before it goes any further, but promises the boys she will give her number to whoever wins the junior singles final the next day. 

Patrick wins. Over the course of the movie, we see Patrick and Tashi navigate a long-distance relationship, as well as a friendship with Art, complete with sensual churro-feeding. While Art and Tashi are studying at Stanford, Patrick has gone pro. Art suggests to Tashi that Patrick doesn’t actually love her, to which she responds, “What makes you think I want someone to be in love with me?”

During a press conference for Challengers, Zendaya described Tashi as “a female character that doesn’t have to be likeable and doesn’t care about you liking her. And doesn’t ask for forgiveness.” Over the course of the film, we see Tashi killing it on the court, pushing the affections of the boys to the back burner. Following an argument during sex, Tashi plays in a match, during which she sustains a career-ending knee injury. Though Patrick rushes to Tashi’s side, she brushes him off, and Art is by her side during the recovery. 

Art and Patrick don’t speak for years after the fact, but this tension and jealousy had been building up for years. Though the bromance between Patrick and Art is visible and at some points tangible, the subtext of hate is ever-present.

Faist revealed that he and O’Connor had worked on cultivating this on-screen tension starting six weeks prior to shooting, when they had temporarily relocated to Boston for production.

“Josh and I would just spend any time that we had just running lines around Boston,” said Faist during a press conference. “Just walking around, and we would just run lines.  We’d go to the park….And by the time we actually got to those scenes…we knew each other’s lines like that.  So we were able to kind of just come in, just like a tennis match.”

By 2011, Art and Tashi are engaged, and huge forces in the realm of tennis. Though Art and Patrick still have not spoken, Tashi and Patrick partake in a rendezvous during a tennis match – of which, Art is secretly aware.

The queer subtext of Art and Patrick’s dynamic never goes further than subtle implications. You can cut the sexual tension with a knife by the time the two reunite in a sauna in 2019. But perhaps the subtlety of it all is the best part.

Throughout Challengers, you can’t tell if Patrick and Art want to f*ck each other, or if they want to be each other. But viewers never lose stamina.  
The ending proves satisfying – for the audience, as well as Tashi, Art, and Patrick. Though some queer viewers have expressed disappointment that there is no explicit queer sex scene, the general consensus holds that the film is one of the most exciting in recent memory. The chaotic bisexual energy of Challengers is symbolic of the social stratification and difference between the two boys, who desperately seek the approval of Tashi.

While Challengers may be polarizing, and slightly less queer than the trailers and teasers imply, the psychological edging leads to a satisfying pay-off.♦

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