Challengers: relationship experts unpack the film’s messy love triangle

Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is as much a film about tennis as Bones and All is about road trips, or Call Me By Your Name is about Tuscany. In bona fide Guadagnino fashion, this is a film about relationships. Specifically, the acutely horny and competitive power play between ex-tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), and best-friends-turned-rivals Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). Tennis is the perfect euphemism. The film’s climactic ending match has virtually no dialogue, yet everyone who watches it seems to be leaving with different – and deeply visceral – reactions to what just has (or hasn’t) happened.

It’s divisive, but it’s not like we weren’t warned. “You’ll have an opinion,” Zendaya told press at a conference in Sydney, “then you’ll watch it again and I guarantee that opinion will change.” Similarly, Mike Faist told Entertainment Weekly that “everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong”. Naturally, Guadagnino doesn’t tell us who wins the match or the mind games, but that’s exactly why it’s good. Challengers seems to ask more questions about the relationships on screen than it answers: we’ve seen discourse over how gay it really is, who’s in the wrong, and which pairing you should actually be shipping. However, no consensus has materialised, so we asked the experts to weigh in.

Tennis is perhaps the fourth figure at play in the love triangle. James Beale, Senior Lecturer in Sports Psychology, School Of Health, Sport And Bioscience at the University of East London, pointed out how a lack of empathy for opponents can bleed into relationships. “When a sports person gives their life to a sport, very often you see an underdevelopment in other areas.” From a sporting psychological standpoint, Beale sees Art as the victim. In sports psychology, Beale says there are four factors in fostering well-being: closeness, commitment, common ground and co-orientation. Beale points out that Tashi refuses to reciprocate Art’s closeness, threatens to leave him (breaking commitment), and becomes his common ground and co-orientation: by doing everything for her, his sense of self disintegrates. “He doesn’t seem to have an identity which is formed through him. His identity is based around what she wants it to be, and that’s a bit of a problem.”

For relationship expert and co-Founder of Bond The Agency Charlotte Ball, none of this is healthy, for anyone. It all comes down to unsatisfiable sub and dom dynamics. “It might be better if they all went their separate ways. Art is too submissive to challenge Tashi. As for Patrick, though he initially might seem a better match for her, as the relationship progresses he would undoubtedly start to irritate Tashi. The relationship would frustrate her sense of ambition.” 

Ultimately, if you see Tashi as the solo main character, the plot is heterosexual in an almost primal sense: two men competing for the same woman. But Challengers isn’t just about Tashi (no matter how much she wants that.) If we flip it on its head, is this a film about how a best-friends-to-lovers pipeline was interrupted by Tashi Duncan?

Nicky Wake, a relationship expert who specialises in LGBTQ+ relationships, argues while it isn’t explicitly gay, “there are queer undertones that underpin their relationship: intense eye contact, intimate touching and heavy sex-like moans when they’re playing tennis. In some ways, Tashi is a homewrecker; she essentially breaks Art’s and Patrick’s friendship, or whatever chemistry they had.”

For marriage and family therapist Sophie Cress, the word “homewrecker” is too strong – and utterly dependent on how you treat Art and Patrick’s relationship. “Is Tashi a homewrecker? Maybe. But she’s not alone in her culpability. Art and Patrick’s relationship in Challengers is one of those complex, layered connections that defy easy categorisation.”

“But let’s be real: when Art and Patrick are together, there’s a certain chemistry that’s hard to ignore. It’s like they bring out different sides of each other. Art, usually the dependable one, becomes more playful and energetic around Patrick. And Patrick finds someone who grounds him in Art. They’re both a little lost without each other, which is why their reunion is such a big deal.”

Ultimately, Cress sees this ambiguity as the thing that makes Challengers so beautiful. “Their relationship isn’t just about friendship; it’s about longing, uncertainty, and the fear of losing someone who meant so much to you. Whether they’re just really good friends or there’s something more, the connection between Art and Patrick is what gives Challengers its emotional depth.”

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital

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