Challengers: the tennis court between rivalry and erotic tension

Rivalry and eroticism: unpacking masculinity through the Luca Guadagnino’s latest movie.

Challengers (2024) is the latest movie directed by Luca Guadagnino, the Italian filmmaker known internationally after the success of Call Me By Your Name (2016). The film narrates a non-love triangle, where the egos of the two male protagonists, Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), crumble under the gaze of Tashi (Zendaya). The competition for Tashi’s attention drives every decision made by Art and Patrick, both on the tennis court and in life, as they are so involved in this rivalry that they fail to realize Tashi’s only true love is tennis. Through tennis, she shapes her relationships with them: by sublimating in both, alternately, the possibility of pursuing the tennis career that was cut short due to an injury, she bets on them alternately, as if they were racehorses. 

The exchange of sharp, precise, fast dialogues, just like a tennis slam, makes the film’s rhythm compelling. Additionally, the techno soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross not only serves as an interlude but becomes a significant presence that even overshadows the dialogues at times. These elements allow Guadagnino to depart from the bucolic, evocative, and dreamy style that his audience had become accustomed to.

The tennis court is used not only as the setting for the contest but also as a revealer of the protagonists’ internalized erotic charge. Art and Patrick’s bodies are meticulously scanned by the director’s eye, which finds its vanishing point in Tashi’s figure, the main spectator of the challenge, followed by the audience in the theater, who take on the role not only of voyeurs but also of passionate supporters: there’s no room for the undecided, team Patrick or team Art. 

It’s so beautiful to kiss people! That’s what I want to say. People, kiss! Do not make war.

At first glance, visually, in the depiction of eroticism that reaches its climax on the tennis court, Guadagnino seems to wink at mainstream gay pornography: he does this by showing bodies oiled, covered in sweat, spit, shots of tense muscles, as well as locations like saunas and locker rooms, which are often featured in this genre. But delving deeper into the use of this semiology by the director, one can say that “the question of masculinity and maleness has often been answered with reference to the ‘male masquerade’ wherein Butler’s discourse of performativity is applied to the construction of masculinity as gender,” as seen in D.A. Miller’s and David Halperin’s analysis of the gay gym body as a performance intended not to maintain power but to gain pleasure.

Here, pleasure is given to the audience as an integral part of the performance. If the scenes between Patrick and Art are isolated and decontextualized, it might seem that there is a romantic relationship between the two, but even without that, the erotic charge between them is very pronounced: their bodies almost never touch each other, if one excludes that random kiss that happen while they thinking to kiss Tashi, and in the final. According to the writer Leo Bersani, a destabilization of masculinity/maleness can also occur beyond performativity. If we follow pornography’s imperative for a “serious” masculinity, from a psychoanalytical point of view, only the second possibility for destabilizing masculinity and maleness remains: jouissance as a form of destructive ecstasy.

The Italian director changes the paradigm: the force that overwhelms Patrick and Art becomes a constructive form that reaches its peak in the final scene, where their rivalry is erased by the embrace they share after a physical confrontation on the court. Even here, the intertwined bodies, like in Greco-Roman wrestling, exude eroticism from every pore.

The deconstruction of mainstream gay porn is not entirely new in cinema, as evidenced by the short film The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998) by artist William E. Jones. This marks an important moment in Jones’s career when he was transitioning from the world of independent documentary cinema to a more freewheeling practice on the margins between several disciplines. It is composed entirely of footage from gay adult videos made in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The video never shows explicit sexual acts, but rather focuses on the gazes of the actors, distant and devoid of any engagement (often heterosexuals who have been roped into these low-budget productions by Westerners to make money).

Sex becomes a pure dynamic of power and economic transaction in dramatically impoverished nations that have just opened up to capitalism. Returning to Bersani’s theory, reported in the book “Hipster Porn” Peter Rehberg,  the gay position of desire is characterized by the internalization of a hegemonic masculinity, “[…] the object of that desire necessarily includes a socially determined and socially pervasive definition of what it means to be a man.” Far from formulating his queer critique as an avoidance of masculinity, Bersani proposes to work through it, sexually.

Seriousness in the genre of gay pornography is unavoidable. That does not mean that male homosexual practice in its fetishization of masculinity has to be understood as unconditional submission to the regime of heteronormative gender politics. It seems that both Guadagnino and Jones play with the element of seriousness, with two different results: in Guadagnino’s movie, joyful passion emerges, while in Jones’s artwork, the condition of men without choice evokes sadness.

Jones’s work can be seen as a sort of post-porn, in contrast to mainstream gay pornography, emphasizing a shift in pornographic representation, it represents a critique of the commodification of pornified male bodies. In the gay scenario, the idealization of masculinity corresponds to the enjoyment of its destruction. “There is, however, perhaps a way to explode this ideological body,” affirmed Bersani.

If one takes the cultural efficacy of pornography (and also of post-pornography) seriously, which is largely based on the claim regarding the authenticity of the depicted bodies, they cannot be understood as articulations through which the performative dimension of gender emerges as masquerade. Thus, the two works can be seen as two sides of the same coin: on one hand, the Italian director’s exploration that maximizes the erotic potential of a subject like tennis, which is notoriously devoid of it; on the other, the American artist’s work that strips pornography of its erotic charge, almost a contradiction in terms.

With “Challengers,” Guadagnino marks the beginning of a new post-porn era: in a hypersexualized age, the return to the unrepresented and the hinted at allows the imagination to roam freely, like that tennis ball on the court in the final match between Art and Patrick.

Challengers by Luca Guadagnino, 2024. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Italia © All rights reserved.
The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography by William E. Jones, 1998. Image Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery © All rights reserved.
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