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Wonderful Pain: How Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers Uses the Language of Body Horror 


Wonderful Pain: How Luca Guadagnino’s <i>Challengers</i> Uses the Language of Body Horror 

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Wonderful Pain: How Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers Uses the Language of Body Horror 

Underlying the sexy tennis drama is a vein of body horror that connects all of the director's work, exploring the vulnerability and fragility of muscle, sinew, and bone...


Published on April 29, 2024

Close-ups of three characters from three of director Luca Guadagnino’s films: Bones and All, Challenger, and Suspira

I was born with spondylolisthesis, meaning a bottom vertebra that parted from the other vertebrae, struck out on its own, rebelled. (It’s the main reason for my pigeon-toed walk.) With this one vertebra out of sync, there’s less room for the nerves inside the column of my spine, and with the slightest movement the nerves feel that much more crowded. Throw in two herniated discs and a bone that won’t stop growing in a futile effort to protect the damaged area, and those nerves start to feel downright claustrophobic. When the nerves protest their cramped quarters, when they send out distress signals, a pain runs up and down my leg that makes me suck in my breath and speak in tongues. At such moments the only relief is to lie down and wait. Sometimes, however, the moment arrives in the middle of a match. Then the only remedy is to alter my game—swing differently, run differently, do everything differently. That’s when my muscles spasm. Everyone avoids change; muscles can’t abide it. Told to change, my muscles join the spinal rebellion, and soon my whole body is at war with itself. ­

—Andre Agassi, Open

Out of all the filmmakers currently working within the body horror sphere, Luca Guadagnino might be the most undervalued. That can partially be attributed to the nature of his work before his 2018 Suspiria remake, which was comprised of sensuous contemplations of romance—I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name—doubling as meditations on the passing of time. That last film, which catapulted Timothee Chalamet into the echelons of Hollywood’s A-List and gave Guadagnino the cred to put a thunderously anti-commercial film like Suspiria in multiplexes around the country on Jeff Bezos’ dime, served as a farewell to the refined first stage of his international career before he plunged head-on into the depths of horror.

Viewed in the light of both its source material and screenwriter James Ivory’s perspective-rich background, Call Me by Your Name piles on the melancholy by depicting the end of youth through a richly-rendered queer romance—young love among the classical iconography of Tuscany, where the statues of gorgeous young men were chiseled by sculptors who ensured their work’s anatomical accuracy through the use of grave-robbed cadavers. It’s only in Guadagnino’s last three films that he’s taken these notions of age and its vicious consequences that had always hung around the edges of the frame and applied them in graphic fashion, where they usually complement other thematic fixations—Suspiria’s guilt, Bones and All’s all-consuming fleshy love, and now, the high-risk, hypercompetitive world of professional tennis in his latest movie, Challengers.

At first blush, it seems odd to include a movie like this—an epically drawn-out psychosexual skewering of a jaundiced love triangle—in a survey of Guadagnino’s horror work, but Challengers artfully applies the language of the genre as a counterweight to its breezy, witty sex comedy. From the first minutes, which follows the post-tournament routines of superstar player Art (Mike Faist) and his coach/wife Tashi (Zendaya) following a frustrating loss. Art’s in his mid-thirties, and he’s showing it—the bunions on his feet are blistered nightmares held at bay by massage (and cortisol, most likely), and his toned body seems stark and spartan when contrasted with the plush glamor of the five-star hotel in which they’re holed up. But the specter of injury still haunts Tashi, as well—we watch her rubbing lotion on her scarred knee, an injury which we’ll see in graphic detail and which represents a rupture for the three lives at the film’s core.

Seeing her husband struggling against top-flight competition, Tashi books Art for a Challenger tournament (which is a lot like a Major Leaguer spending time down with a Triple-A team following an injury or a slump), and they head to Cincinnati for what they assume will be a series of easy wins and a good way for Art to get his swagger back before the US Open. They couldn’t be more wrong, though: fate has a surprise in store for the pair in the form of Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a washed-up Never Was who, once upon a time, used to be Art’s doubles partner (and best friend). When they meet up in the final after not acknowledging each other for decades, those years of frustration, back-stabbing, and insecurities manifest themselves in every serve and volley. The match gives the film its structure, with the full history of their relationship unfolding in flashbacks alongside each set, unveiling the characters’ complex history with each other and the sport itself.

Despite Art and Patrick serving as our protagonists (at least in terms of how their recollections color each flashback), Tashi ultimately sets the rules for their mind games. Back when the two were best friends, immediately after the high-water mark of their adolescence—winning the Junior Doubles Championship at the US Open—the pair met her at a party that Adidas was throwing in her honor. Tashi was once heralded as the next Serena Williams, who seemed bound for a successful college career and a lucrative stint as one of the world’s top-ranked tennis players. She and Art were both headed to Stanford, which seemingly gave him a nice “in” with her, but she was attracted to Patrick, at least at first. But—after a hot night in a hotel room in Flushing, in which she coaxes the two friends to make out with one another—Patrick wound up besting Art in the Singles Championship the next day, and Tashi chose to date him instead. Their relationship was beset by the kind of frustrations that one would imagine hot-headed athletes in young love to have (Patrick was on tour, having gone pro instead of heading to college, and Art was waiting in the wings for him to fuck up), and after one particularly heated argument during one of his visits to Stanford’s campus, Patrick is a no-show at one of Tashi’s games. Art’s there, however, and he witnesses the end of Tashi’s career as she knew it. One misstep, and she snaps a series of tendons and ligaments in her knee, as foreshadowed earlier on in the present-day scenes. Guadagnino slows down time, and we watch her leg move in ways it shouldn’t—a freak accident that throws the entire world into chaos.

This horrible contortion is a milder echo of one of Suspiria’s most dramatic scenes. Olga (Elena Fokina), one of the girls at the ballet academy, finds herself trapped in a rehearsal studio whose walls are adorned with mirrors. She’s trying to leave following a heated argument with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), her instructor, who is also one of the witches whose magic is bewitching the school. In the classroom, Madame Blanc tells Susie (Dakota Johnson) to take Olga’s part, and she begins her dance, imbued with the brutality that Blanc was hoping for in the performance. In the mirrored room, Olga falls under some magical influence—her body unwillingly following Susie’s movements, albeit without any of the grace. Her bones crack as she twists about, the implied violence of Susie’s movements translating itself into raw and torturous pain with gory results. (Consider this a content warning for the video clip below, for those who haven’t seen the movie.)

Olga, like Tashi, is betrayed by her body—she doesn’t know why this is happening to her or what she did to deserve this, but it is happening to her, outside of her control, and all that’s left in the present moment is dread. Tashi’s injury isn’t that bad physically—at least she’s not dead in a Berlin dance academy, soon to be dragged out by meat hook-wielding witches—but it is a kind of metaphysical death: the death of the generation-defining icon that Tashi was going to be. She is able to pivot, becoming Art’s well-respected coach as well as his partner, but the thrill is gone, her competitive glory coming second-hand when it all could have been hers if not for Patrick’s actions—at least in her mind.

As a culture, we do a fantastic job of eliding the horrors that playing sports—professional, amateur, or otherwise—can wreck on an athlete’s body. Aside from, say, Blitz: The League II (a football video game whose pre-Bountygate X-Ray injuries would pave the way for the Mortal Kombat series’ Krushing Blows), we let a lot of individual words provide a terminus for otherwise intrusive gory thoughts. An “ACL/MCL tear” becomes fodder for ESPN’s First Take or an inconvenience to one’s fantasy team rather than the complex and traumatic injury that it is, much less the bloody nature of the surgery required to fix it or any of the complications that might arise from the procedure. There are moments in which we’re vividly reminded of this fragility on the national stage—quarterback Joe Theismann and NCAA player Kevin Ware’s injuries remain flashbulb moments for fans who witnessed them live, and even David Cronenberg would have a hard time looking at those horrors without flinching—but the player is cognizant of it all of the time. Much like in ballet, the athlete attempts to outrun genetics and time, laboring in open defiance of the possible, the inevitable. When people describe Tom Brady as the GOAT, they’re measuring his success over time—it should not be possible for him to beat Patrick Mahomes, who was barely a year old when Brady threw his first pass for the Michigan Wolverines, in a Super Bowl match-up twenty years after Brady got the Patriots that first ring—when they’d probably say “Bo Jackson” if they were trying to describe the most purely athletic individual to ever walk the Earth. After all, the only thing Bo didn’t know was Diddley, before a freak hip injury changed his life.

What Guadagnino does so well in Challengers is show how this ephemeral terror—of having a talent or skill and the decades of training that went into honing it, upon which your entire life (and those of your family and entourage) depends, and the knowledge that a wrong move on the court could single-handedly strip you of your skill like a freshly-sheared Sampson—impacts the psyches of our leads. Their emotional conflicts have physical and temporal dimensions, and these aspects place them nicely within the same framework as his other, more obviously body-horror pictures, in which the battle between age, health, and youth is overtly rendered in the texts. Consider Mark Rylance’s aged, folksy cannibal pursuing Chalamet and Taylor Russell in Bones and All, presenting a harmless, non-threatening persona that draws younger people with the same affliction into his orbit. He wants to be a peer—perhaps, ideally, a mentor to Russell’s character—but he’s become almost totally alienated after a lifetime spent preying in the shadows. He is, of course, representative of the worst-case scenario for our protagonists, whose estrangement from humanity has led him to outright degeneracy—eternal, thoughtless hunger and consumption in which there is no ethical consideration given to the victim or the world he’s tearing apart with each devoured conquest. But he is also time itself—his unwanted presence in their lives and his dogged persistence after their “betrayal” of him ensures that their ending can never be fully happy, and indeed, it isn’t. Their love exists in defiance of him and nature itself, and it is doomed from the start.

Happily, Challengers is much closer to the traditional ideal of Shakespearean comedy in its closing moments, with Guadagnino offering a much breezier and easier absolution than the weighty forgiveness that awaits at the end of Suspiria (which is appropriately measured, given the thematic heft of everything going on in that film). But that is, perhaps, the throughline that unites Guadagnino’s last few films: the body breaking against the walls of feeling, be it desire (Call Me by Your Name), grief manifesting as guilt (Suspiria), hungry love (Bones and All), and now, competitiveness. With its joyous resolution, with Trent Reznor’s shockingly sunny vocal hitting the electropop over the brightly-colored end titles, Challengers offers sweet relief after all the pain it puts its protagonists through, both in body and spirit, with the struggle being worth the reward. To quote Andre Agassi, “[t]he pain felt wonderful, almost sweet, because it was the kind that you can tell precedes relief. But maybe all pain is like that.” icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Nick Johnston


Nick Johnston is the Film Critic and Editor at Vanyaland. His work has appeared in Polygon and The Boston Phoenix.
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