The Ties Between Love & Existence in Challengers

An illustrated image of Art and Patrick in Challengers (2004), meeting at the net in a tennis match while Tashi looks on from the crowd.
illustration by Tom Ralston

C’mere

A sweaty hotel room: sirens outside the window, mugginess hanging in the air, the walls crusted in yellow from decades of smokers. Three tentative teens approach each other for the first time. This is the start of Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers, if not chronologically. It is also its peak. In this dingy hotel room, swaggering on the grand future in front of them, Tashi (Zendaya), Patrick (Josh O’Connor), and Art (Mike Faist) are honest, vulnerable, and open in a way that will never be reached again. 

It shouldn’t be a room or a time we want to return to—awkward, fumbling youth, a shower cap on the smoke detector, and one beer for three people—but it’s a beacon for the rest of the film. In this scene, the characters’ base desires are laid out plainly; the moment is both salacious and touching, innocent and romantic. The rest of the film is a journey back to this room, to re-engage with the younger selves who were put on pause, to reform this unit that was in harmony for just a few minutes thirteen years ago.  

I always wondered what happened to you. But then I realized it was what didn’t happen to you. You never grew up.

Challengers weaves in and out of time over the relationships between these three characters, connected from that moment in the hotel room through the next decade of their lives. At a certain point, however, the title cards telling us what year it is don’t matter, the differently-cut wigs have little impact, and the deepening eye bags of an aging face barely faze us; the years in between the events of the film collapse in on themselves as just one long protracted life. Thirteen years ago is only five minutes away, childhood is within reach within the film’s structure. If we are patient enough, we can eventually fade into a flashback that will delight and thrill us, taking us away from the sadness plaguing the trio’s now adult lives. 

Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes’s non-chronological structure also works to emphasize something important—that these are three people who have been frozen, teenagers in adult bodies, clawing their way back to a life when everything has gone by the wayside. Tashi’s tennis dreams are destroyed after a terrible injury, Patrick’s pro career is pathetic, and Art is miserable in his success as a tennis celebrity. Tashi and Art might be good at playing “adults,” but their actions and body language continually give them away. Money and success have allowed them to hide themselves, whereas the rawness that comes from Patrick’s arrested development is painful for them to look at, because it reflects themselves.

The day that Tashi blew out her knee, life stopped. The crack of bone, so unfathomable that not just is her own potential cut short, the path of her life forever changed, but that of Patrick and Art’s as well. There’s a line in the original script, when asked about his failing tennis career, where Patrick admits, “I don’t know. It felt wrong to try too hard. I fucked up your whole life. It didn’t seem fair for me to all of a sudden start taking my tennis seriously after you got injured.” Art expresses similar guilt, believing that if he had won Tashi’s phone number in the first place, the chain of events wouldn’t have happened as it did. The knee injury was a freak terrible accident, but that doesn’t stop it from haunting all three characters. The loss thrums throughout the film. Since that day their lives have been on pause. Unable—and maybe also unwilling—to mature into proper adults, or to give into their teen instincts, they are caught in constant paralysis. Their bodies echo this: awkward and unsure. 

In one of the film’s final scenes, Tashi runs into Patrick’s car in the middle of the night, abandoning her family in their cushy hotel. In that broken-down car, which itself is stunted, their bodies are cramped, their actions elementary. Tashi’s knees are pressed to her chest as she sits. They jab at each other hoping, praying for some kind of reaction, physically or verbally. They dismiss each other with playground taunts: “You’re stupid, no, you’re stupid.” When Tashi calls Patrick a child he replies, “Of course I am, I’ve spent my entire life playing with a ball and a racquet.” 

Though Art and Tashi are parents, we rarely see them behave as such. Their relationship as co-parents is even more unknown; Tashi’s mother is kept around as a permanent nanny for their child. Art’s body curls and contorts whenever he is around Tashi, as if he’s a lovesick teenager again. He defers to her, kneeling, resting his head on her lap, begging for reassurance of her love—not just for romantic reasons but for proof of his relevance. Like a child, he’s dependent on her approval, her validation, her acknowledgment  of his own existence. These three adults are stuck in a state of arrested development, but because their world is so insular, they‘ve come to rely on each other to be the adults in the room. Their personhood depends on each other, and with each breath and every racket swing, they are asking to assert themselves as people. 

This arrested development does not stem from the knee injury alone, of course, but from the breaking apart of the trio following the injury. When Patrick attempts to visit Tashi at the doctor’s, he is brutally rejected by her, but more importantly by Art, and the hurt from this betrayal reads clearly across his face . None of these characters can successfully survive without the other two; in any scene where there are only two, the third is a lingering presence, a ghost haunting every conversation. Their clothes trade on and off each other’s bodies, during intimate scenes the missing limb is often invoked like an all-seeing eye. Because this trio fell apart at such a formative time they were unable to learn themselves as separate individuals. Art can be the best tennis player in the world but he knows he’s never beaten Patrick, Patrick moons and mourns for his lost life as he wanders from tournament to tournament unmoored, and Tashi gives into child-like impulses that draw her again and again to seek out wins, thrills, and eventually, Patrick. They only conceptualize themselves as one part of a fractured whole.

It’s like we were in love. Or like we didn’t exist.

According to Tashi, tennis is fifteen seconds of being perfectly in sync with another person. So in sync, so powerful in that knowledge of your understanding that the feeling almost mimics love or oblivion. 

In Guadagnino’s previous film, Bones and All, the camera lingers in space often, looking at the shafts of light in a college apartment, the breeze in the midwest, a figure sleeping against a moving car. Small, environmental moments are amplified to show their beauty amidst the grotesqueness of cannibalism. Spaces are often shown as foreshadowing, or as a reminder of those who have left. While Challengers doesn’t allow much time for Guadagnino to linger in this fashion, there are small moments in which we are left in spaces without characters, without humans. Three in particular stand out. As Tashi realizes that she’ll never get to play like she wanted to again, she takes a minute to herself under a tree. We arrive there first, watching the space for several seconds before she appears. When Tashi and Patrick reignite their affair on the night before the big match, we cut from them making out outside the car to the car itself all alone in the parking lot, and though we can assume the two of them are within it, the image is empty and lonely. The third of these shots is when Tashi returns to the hotel after their affair. We get a shot of the empty hotel hallway before she appears like a ghost, as if she was there the entire time. These characters may be bigger than life in their personalities but fade against their surroundings; these empty spaces don’t exist to contain them and aren’t waiting for them to come into frame. Why would they when they’re barely even whole people anyway? 

Art, Tashi, and Patrick see each other as the only people in their world. And the audience sees them this way too, every other character is just passing by, background players in their story. The only three people who matter—who are relevant, who can be loved—are each other. The trio’s very idea of existence is tied to love; this makes being loved vital and desperate. They have given each other an almost mythical amount of power. And because of this, the punishment for being shunned from love is to be cast out of existence itself. 

And that’s where we find our fallen lover, Lucifer cast down from heaven, Adam banished from Eden. After the trio’s fateful break, Patrick disappears from Tashi and Art’s life for over a decade. We can fill in the blanks of his life, one that’s full of disappointment, leading him to living in his car, prostituting himself for a night in a bed, and sucking on cigarettes every other moment. Patrick has been a small blip on the sidelines of Art and Tashi’s valiant effort towards formalizing their relationship, appearing as if conjured at tennis matches, still wearing the shirt he left them in, as if he’s been frozen in time just waiting to be called on.

Perhaps this fear of banishment is what drives Patrick’s body language to be so aggressive. He literally throws his body into people’s personal space in an attempt to seduce, but also as a reminder that he is there, as if he’s worried that if he strays from someone’s vision he’ll disappear from the narrative. On a house-hunting mission disguised as a Tinder date, Patrick kisses his date suddenly and without explanation and when she jerks back, he seems shocked. At the motel when Patrick cannot afford a room he leans so close to the owner that it looks like they might kiss. In an early moment, when a tennis judge offers Patrick half of her breakfast sandwich, his movements are jerky, unpoised. He lurches forward in his seat and for a moment it looks like he’s about to throw up. 

The camera highlights this movement with jolting cuts in time with Patrick’s movements, making them seem animalistic and almost violent. Like any creature abandoned by those it loves, Patrick cannot ration himself to small movements, he is pure impulse and force. But as Patrick has not simply been abandoned but instead deleted, there is no true impact he can have with these actions. Tashi, who pulls Patrick close in his same fashion, leaves a bruise on his body but he is unable to leave anything on hers. No matter how much Patrick pushes at people he is still unclaimed, still disappeared.

Tashi, too, exists as an apparition, a killed dream, wandering through the movie without fully understanding her purpose. My favorite scene in Challengers is a small moment, a wind storm raging outside, Tashi sitting in the dark in the hotel room that is not her home, while Patrick’s voiceover says “I miss watching you play, Tashi, you were so beautiful.” It feels like a stab in the heart: this scene acknowledging the darkness underneath all the fun relationship mechanics and tennis shots. Everything died with Tashi’s career, and that deep well of grief penetrates her entire character, and the entire story we’re watching. It’s like the Tashi she knew vanished at nineteen. 

Instead of dying, Tashi becomes a coach. She watches playback of tennis matches on TV, scoping players out—even at a middling challenger competition—her life consumed by the study of other people living. Which is why the idea of Art deciding to quit tennis is such a blow to her personhood. “Who is he to you if he isn’t playing tennis?” Patrick asks her, but the more pressing concern is: who is Tashi if Art takes away her ability to live through him, to exist in him? In loving each other they have given another the power over their being, their existence, have forfeited autonomy for the collective and so are easily destroyed by the personal actions each takes.

It all brings up a larger question: if you love someone, are you allowing them to unmake you? Do we give this power to another person and hope they won’t use it? That they will allow us to remain part of the sacred group and not banish us and deny us our personhood? Maybe these questions only pertain to codependency, maybe it’s an important distinction between love and need, but who can ever really tell the difference? 

What am I? Jesus?

Is Art Donaldson normal? Well-adjusted? He has a successful tennis career, approaching a career slam, and a family to call his own. But we don’t see any of this fulfill him. The glory and the fame are well hidden. In Art’s first match, he prepares in a private locker room that looks like a broom closet, separated from a crowd of adoring fans, from the entire outside world. In Atlanta, when Art almost catches Patrick and Tashi rekindling their relationship in the lobby, he’s distracted by a fan asking for an autograph. When he looks back, they’re gone. His fame is only that: a distraction. The only game he likes playing is the kind that Patrick and Tashi can pull out of him. 

Tashi and Patrick seem fascinated, even obsessed, with the idea of Art: a golden boy they can mold. When Patrick visits Tashi at college, their foreplay is fueled by conversations about Art and how much better he’s gotten at tennis. After Art proposes to Tashi; Patrick and Tashi sleep together. Art tells Tashi he wants to quit tennis; Patrick and Tashi sleep together. Both have placed Art on a pedestal in their minds:the good one, the representative, believing themselves to be nasty and ugly. 

When Art seeks reassurance from Tashi, a saint seeking unconditional love, she responds, “What am I? Jesus?” and he responds earnestly, “Yeah.” So, let’s play with that idea. A ghost can be a type of god—not visible, but present. Tashi is elusive and mysterious to Art, conducting every part of his life but withholding her innermost self. Art worships Tashi, and the only moment where she meets him halfway occurs at an Applebee’s where they seem momentarily on a level playing field. And once you’ve caught a god, you have to do everything to keep it: play tennis even if you no longer enjoy it, cut off your best friend to keep in their good graces, beat and mold yourself into someone worthy of that god. Challengers shows us Art’s intolerable and tortuous routine early on—the strange drink concoctions, the constant exercise. He’s turned himself into a machine to feel worthy of Tashi’s love. 

What Art doesn’t realize is that, when they pushed Patrick out of paradise, they banished themselves—their true selves—too. Art can’t see that Tashi and Patrick are both his creators. Patrick formed his youth and Tashi formed his adult life; Patrick taught him to jerk off and Tashi taught him better tennis. But when the creators are forsaken, what happens to the creation? Does it continue on? Can it? For Art, the answer is no. He’s given up on tennis, their shared religion, and he wants to retire. Or, as Patrick puts it, “He’s ready to be dead.” 

Come on!

So then, what do you do with these three characters, two of whom are ghosts milling throughout their own lives, and another who is on his way to that? You jolt them with a techno score so good it’s already the start of club night talks. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score isn’t what you’d likely imagine for a tennis film, but it’s constantly pounding beat, underlaid by soft and mournful piano, is just what Challengers requires. The score is full of artificial sounds overlaying real ones, an alarm clock, the thump of a tennis ball, sometimes even the character’s dialogue is overshadowed by the soundtrack. 

The constant beat reminded me of learning CPR, the ways in which the instructors teach you songs to remember the rhythm of pumping life back into someone’s body. And in some ways, that’s exactly what the score seems to be doing here, attempting to resuscitate these characters, and eventually succeeding. This is true of their reunion as well. Whenever there are only two of them in a scene, they are often frozen at an emotional impasse, but when the third emerges, there’s a shock to the system, electrifying them to action. Tashi was their creator all along, orchestrating the circumstances behind that hotel tryst; she’s the one who encouraged Art and Patrick to kiss, changing the dynamic between all three of them forever. Patrick delights in Art trying to break him and Tashi up, because of the spark it lights in Art. In the final game of the film’s last match, Patrick tells him that he slept with Tashi using the gesture they had (the past is never far away), which shocks Art into caring about the game. His heart beats once again. Challengers is a fight for recognition and existence, but more importantly, it’s a story of love as an act of reanimation. 

In the film’s final sequence, the audience practically becomes the camera, which itself becomes the tennis ball, throwing itself back and forth before soon soaring up above the courts, then down under them, and then back and forth from Tashi, to Art, to Patrick in frantic forward motion. It’s a moment in which craft comes together perfectly with story and character to create something unforgettable: a rebirth. The film erupts in Tashi’s final scream, echoing one from her youth. It’s like she finally remembers how to breathe.