In Challengers, Love is a Game But Sex is Not

Zendaya’s sexy tennis movie is about more than just sex.

Inverse Reviews

“Everything is about sex. Except sex, which is about power.”

Oscar Wilde’s words couldn’t ring truer than in Luca Guadagnino’s thrilling new film, Challengers. It had gained the reputation as the “sexy tennis movie” before it even hit theaters, and it earns the label in spades with its wildly sensual, breathlessly propulsive story of a love triangle between two best friends (Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist) and the beautiful tennis star (Zendaya) whose ruthless ambitions soon dictate all three of their lives. It’s one of the most erotically charged movies released in years — but interestingly, without any actual sex scenes.

There are sexy scenes, and one intimate moment between Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan and Josh O’Connor’s Patrick Zweig is so steamy it could induce a full-body blush, but no one actually gets naked on screen. But the whole film, which takes place within the span of one tennis match between Patrick and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) as the central trio think back on pivotal moments in their friendship-turned-rivalry-turned-something-else, is arguably one long sex scene.

It all comes down to the game of tennis, a proclaimed “gentlemen’s sport” that’s steeped in sex: the back-and-forth rhythm of the game, the lithe athletes who tend to be its biggest stars, and, of course, the guttural grunts and moans that tennis players unleash whenever they hit a ball (supposedly a way of improving your power). Guadagnino takes the inherent sexiness within the game and turns it into a two-hour exercise in tension so taut and heated it will have you panting alongside its characters.

For this, Challengers adds an interesting wrinkle to the ongoing sex scene discourse. It’s a debate that’s overtaken the industry in recent years: whether sex scenes are “necessary.” This debate, most prominent in Gen Z moviegoers whose demand for less sex and nudity onscreen has already impacted our biggest blockbusters (remember when superhero movies were sexy?), threatens to move Hollywood toward its most Puritanical era since the Hays Code was in effect.

It seems like this wouldn’t apply to a movie that doesn’t have an actual sex scene. We just see the buildup to one, and the aftermath of another, Guadagnino’s camera cutting away right at the, ahem, climax. The steamy central threesome between Tasha, Patrick, and Art, around which much hoopla has been made, is essentially just a makeout session, one that turns into a supercharged show of exhibitionism when Tasha essentially presses Patrick and Art’s faces together and becomes the gleeful voyeur of their uninhibited passion.

Mike Faist’s Art is more subdued next to Zendaya’s tightly coiled, domineering performance as Tashi.


This makes the lack of an actual sex scene in Challengers different from the criticism Guadagnino received for cutting from the good stuff in Call Me By Your Name. His 2017 queer romance tactfully panned away just as Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer were about to do the deed, but Call Me By Your Name was more about the eroticism of yearning (and of what a horny teenage boy can do to an innocent peach). Challengers is about how sex is embedded in everything — from a heated sauna exchange between Patrick and Art, to Patrick’s grimy desperation to redeem his failing tennis career, and Tasha’s unspoken resentment against Art’s diminishing passion on the court (a metaphor for the bedroom). That’s what makes Challengers part of the “sex in movies is good” team.

Not only are sex scenes on the downturn as movies become sexless, but any sense of eroticism is also being removed. “Everyone is beautiful and no one is horny,” Blood Knife declared, speaking mostly of the sexless beauty of superhero movies, which seem afraid to even broach the topic of romance, sex, or anything even resembling chemistry. But the sentiment could apply to many movies today, especially those caught up in plot mechanics and whatever’s deemed morally unobjectionable to a mass audience. Because of that, we lose the all-consuming, wildly underrated experience of being turned on by a movie.

The alternately passionate and hostile relationship between Josh O’Connor’s Patrick and Zendaya’s Tashi drives the film’s erotic energy.


Challengers is powerfully, painfully, erotic. What it shows is that desire, love, and hate can go hand-in-hand, a menage-a-troi just as sticky and steamy as the one we see nearly play out between Tashi, Patrick, and Art. Buoyed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ synthy, galvanizing score, Challengers is Guadagnino showing us the experience of sex onscreen, just without any sex.

Challengers is playing in theaters now.

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