Challengers, an erotic sports drama from Call Me by Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, feels like a movie reverse-engineered from tennis grunts sounding like sex noises. Tennis is sex, the film screams—or, in the verbatim words of one of its leads, “tennis is a relationship”—and every bead of sweat, lustful glance, and loud, sharp thwack springs from that idea, spicing up a love triangle with paddles, balls, and nets. For what is love but a round of game, set, match? Or, uh, when you have two loves, that’s a zero-sum ­game. You get it. Challengers basks in it.

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Written by Justin Kuritzkes (whose wife, Celine Song, directed the equally love-triangled Past Lives—how are things at home, guys?), Challengers follows former friends Patrick and Art (Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist) as they compete for the affection of Tashi, a tennis-star-turned-coach played by Zendaya at her best. The film lays out their triangle non-chronologically: in the present, Art and Tashi and married, the former a tennis champ and Tashi his coach, so big they’re headlining car ads, and Patrick, conversely, is living out of his car, poor, unkempt, and alone. When the two men reunite on opposite sides of a net, it’s something like twisted fate. In college, a decade-plus earlier, Patrick and Art were best friends and doubles partners (teammates in two-on-twos), and both besotted fans of Tashi who have a chance to see her in person. When the two first see her play, Art grabs Patrick’s thigh in excitement; by the end of the next day, Tashi is dating Patrick. The game begins, and the sides clearly won’t stay the same.

The love side of “love is a game” is where Challengers really shines. Guadagnino has always been a playful filmmaker—sensually sweeping cameras tracking bodies in constant motion—but this is his most lively work since 2015’s A Bigger Splash, even matching that film’s cheeky eroticism. Patrick, Tashi, and Art’s first night together, which is not as chaste as you’d expect out of three athletic twentysomethings, is filmed with gleeful luridity, shooting aroused faces in extreme close-up like an eager softcore pornographer. It’s not boundary-pushing eroticism, but in today’s sexless Hollywood, it plays like the end of a dry spell. Those who saw Mike Faist in West Side Story and thought “I want to see more of him” will be pleased to have been understood correctly. Also rousing are the characters’ verbal spats, which are edited with the pace of a tennis match—rapid back-and-forths between faces and motions as insults are traded in volleys. Every glare seethes “What’s your move?”

Less successful is the game half of “love is a game.” The tennis matches don’t bleed passion the way the romance bleeds competition. This sometimes comes down to the camera, as it cycles through methods that are initially surprising—first-person perspective! ESPN style! The ball is the camera!—but quickly feel like gimmicks with little interpersonal heat. The matches are more propulsive as games than as bursts of gamified desire. Reznor and Ross’ score is electric, thumpy and synthy and shot through with piano, but the images can’t keep up. The strongest moments of the climactic match come through mostly in performance.

Narratively, Challengers can sometimes feel too inevitable. Tashi bounces between Art and Patrick as the two’s prowess in and dedication to tennis oscillate, defining the three near-entirely by their desires in romance and sport (which are, if you recall, the same). This heightens the competition, but it turns the story into a waiting game: whose court will the ball land in? Stay tuned to see who swings harder this round. Tashi’s strain for control over the game makes her a compelling plot piece, but she’s still more motivation than character.

Thankfully, the potency of lust and the stench of sweat overcome the predictability. There’s something to how inevitable it all is: driven by hormones, competitiveness, and pride, none of the trio seems to act of free will; they’re animals chasing urges in bed and on the court. That the three are as shallow as what their bodies want in the moment makes Challengers purer, sexier, more fun. Its pleasures are obvious: sports and sex. Base urges for mass exhibition. And our coliseums have air conditioning!

★★★★   (4/5)