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Josh O’Connor stars as Patrick and Zendaya as Tashi in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS. An Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Is “Challengers” an erotic thriller? One woman's opinion.

Haley Mlotek

Zendaya as femme fatale, tennis as a crime of passion: considering the genre of a recent film phenomenon.

Is Challengers an erotic thriller? This is the question that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since I saw it this past Saturday afternoon in a movie theater packed with people who presumably also love a slutty matinee. 

Consider the evidence. First of all, this movie is so slutty. For those who have seen it, I don’t have to elaborate; for those who haven’t, once you’ve heard one of the main characters deliver a very sweet monologue about jerking off, the whacking of a tennis ball will never sound the same again. 

On the other hand, the erotic thriller is certainly a categorization that can be determined by mood or feel, but it also has a literal definition that, much like a love triangle, requires three main elements: the femme fatale, the fall guy, and the crimes of an illegal or emotional nature that happen between all the sex. In Linda Ruth Williams’ seminal (ha ha) book, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, she defined the genre as being “noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for onscreen softcore sex.”

The sexuality of Challengers is only briefly an actual triangle. I take no issue with the decision to market it as a film about bisexuality, or MFM threesomes that are always on the verge of becoming MMF threesomes, or Loewe outfits; after all, they persuaded me to buy a ticket. But this is no more a movie about any of the above than it is a movie about tennis. Challengers is fundamentally a movie about the erotics of infidelity—an art form of duplicity, sexual intrigue, and flimsy excuses to watch three hot people make out. 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker known as much for his erotics of elegantly louche aestheticism as he is for the erotics of his plots themselves, and written by playwright Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers stars Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist as three tennis prodigies who spend their formative athletic and adolescent years establishing a dynamic of torturing each other sexually and tennis-ally. The film itself, when Googled, is billed as a “romantic sports drama,” and so what Google says must be true. Kuritzkes has been quoted as saying he considers Challengers an “erotic, tennis thriller,” and I find the comma there to be doing a lot of work to confuse rather than clarify the question—was he pausing in the middle of trying to name the category of his own work, or was the interviewer trying to convey a hesitation?  Either way, this genre question whips past my head like Guadagnino’s camera. 

Challengers is definitely a sports movie. And while I have long held the belief that, like every dance movie, every sports movie is good, just because sex happens in a sports movie this does not automatically make such a movie erotic. (For further review, consider Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta in Perfect, a sports-journalism movie about the supposed sensuality of…aerobics classes.) Much more sweat is poured in the act of whacking a ball, literally, on the tennis courts, than anything that happens in a bed. 

It could also be a drama about masculinity and intimacy—a romance between two men communicated through the same woman, as homoerotic as it is homosocial. Most jokes and memes about the movie have referenced April from Parks and Recreation, trying to explain to her colleagues that it’s not that complicated: her boyfriend is her boyfriend but also a boyfriend to his boyfriend. There’s a TikTok sound that goes I want two boyfriends and I want the boyfriends to be boyfriends; like that. I’ll admit that I also thought, for a moment, of Samantha Jones’ failed threesome with her friends in a couple, David and David, in season two of Sex and the City, but that says more about my frame of reference than it does Guadagnino’s. 

But—but!—but (ha ha), then there are the characters themselves. Faist is a Bambi of a fall guy, and O’Connor is a modern-day version of what previous eras might have called a rake or a cad; both are very fun to watch as their respective archetypes. Meanwhile, as the femme at the pinnacle of the triangle, there is much about Zendaya’s performance and presentation as Tashi that references the classic femme fatale: her murderous stare recalls Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, while the camel-colored cashmere sweaters and pristine gold accessories recall Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Her obsession with business, success, strength, and greed is reminiscent of the other 1980s genre that overlapped with the erotic thriller—that of Wall Street being made, somehow, sexy—and in her steely dedication to being, if not a winner herself, then the person who can make a winner, she recalls the “career woman” archetype of Glenn Close at the beginning of Fatal Attraction, or a far less problematic Demi Moore from Disclosure. She wants most what she says she doesn’t. She’s trouble. 

 In an essay published on Jezebel in 2021, the cultural critic Rich Juzwiak wrote that the 1990s were a decade in which the erotic thriller could reasonably be considered the most popular genre; by the millennium, “it was clear that flops had well outnumbered the smashes, and the genre had mostly migrated to the easily dismissed space of the small-budgeted direct to video market…’They don’t make ‘em like they used to’ could be said about movies in general, given the continually evolving industry. ‘They don’t make em, period,’ is more like it regarding the erotic thriller.”

An important point that Juzwiak makes is the time and context of when the erotic thriller had its moment: as remnants and relics from the sex wars, the introduction of HIV and AIDS into the mainstream of public consciousness, and the intensely debated gender politics of class, race, and power that was happening in political and cultural spheres alike. “They are small history lessons that underscore the anxiety of dangerous sex, as well as the somewhat conflicting interests of consuming sex and punishment in a single sitting.” Juzwiak writes, in his description of the famed femmes in the 1980s and 1990s, that one egregious example is Madonna in Body of Evidence, who is described by the prosecutor of her murder trial as “no [different] than a gun or a knife or any kind of weapon” — “Forget the metaphor,” Juzwiak says, “this woman is deadly by nature.” 

A recent New York Times headline claimed that “After A Period of Chastity, Hollywood Movies Embrace Sex Again,” arguing that the critical and social-media-based success of Saltburn coupled with the release of Challengers points to a return to horniness in cinema. (Love Lies Bleeding is another recent movie that seems to fit the definition of erotic thriller, all the more so because it also overlaps with the true neo-noir genre.) Challengers did have a financially notable opening weekend, which is more than ever an indicator of actual success in Hollywood, the idea being that people would typically rather stay in the comfort of their home than attend a theater, or pay $4.99 to rent a streaming film than whatever exorbitant amount your local theater might charge you. “We’re obviously very, very happy with the number,” said Kevin Wilson, the head of theatrical distribution for Amazon Studios and MGM. “Looking at the audience who showed up, it’s really encouraging,” he continued, presumably referring to Gen Z. “It’s not the easiest audience to get to theatres.”

Linda Ruth Williams believed that the best indicator of an erotic thriller’s success was the “constant awareness of masturbation as a prime audience response and index of the film’s success.” Blockbuster needed to exist for these movies to have thrived when they did; it is unclear whether TikTok or streaming provide the same promise of illicit privacy. (This is a marked difference from the genre’s predecessor of the 1970s, a certain pornography chic that had its apex with Deep Throat, though it had the unintended effect of turning porn theaters into cocktail parties; Nora Ephron wrote that seeing Deep Throat was basically mandatory viewing for the well-cultured set, John Waters once said that nobody was jerking off when they were at Deep Throat screenings, lest they find that they had sat next to someone like Angela Lansbury.)

We take for granted the presence of explicit sexual conduct in today’s films. “Only since the 1960s,” Williams reminds us, “has sex ceased to be the officially unmentionable, invisible energy of so much that attracts us to film.” Some of us had to make do with the innuendo of rented softcore movies or episodes of The Red Shoe Diaries silently watched on the basement television. Homoeroticism made text rather than subtext is even more recent. Some of us had to take a single kiss between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair in Cruel Intentions as a signifier of casual depravity rather than consummated desire. Some of us had to delight in the pure joy of a Merchant Ivory scene of men skinny dipping; for male characters in particular, queerness in erotic thrillers has also been used to show repression, shame, violence, and the interplay between all three, like in William Friedkin’s Cruising. 

Then again, sex on screen is not the same as eroticism. Depictions of sex can be and often are clinical, or exploitative, or dull, as prone to being ruined by moralistic Puritanism as they are by exploitative shock tactics. A kiss can do more than anything else to make a film truly erotic, and of all the heavily weighted kisses between the three in Challengers, the one that is most electric is the one between two men. Kisses “no longer carry the burden—or the enormous electrical charge—of being the whole of sex that can be seen,” wrote Williams, but this kiss is not just a prelude. 

The other elements of class, race, and gender that underscore the intensity of denied attractions in Challengers, the film could just as easily be read as a melodrama from the 1950s, when affairs and swinging and secrets were as culturally stylish signifiers as tennis whites and king-sized beds. “Verbal satire…was the preferred way of addressing adult situations during the transition from the Code to the new ratings system,” wrote Williams in her book on pornography and sexuality in cinema, Screening Sex. Many of Challengers’ symbols—the balls (ha)—feel like a visual reference to such satires, with the added satisfaction of knowing they don’t have to begin and end as signifiers.  

What kind of movie is Challengers, besides a viral marketing phenomenon and a very slutty way to spend a Saturday afternoon? The surprising aggressiveness of Guadagnino’s directing—the editing is so frenetic that at one point it occurred to me it might be approximating the hormonal feel of being post-puberty but pre-frontal lobe development, certainly something like the experience of having a tennis ball whacked around inside your head—is dramatic, but it is not the drama. There is definitely romance, but it’s between friends and rivals, not lovers. No crime is committed, unless you count Zendaya’s emotional terrorism. It’s not a sports movie, because the question of who will win the game isn’t the point. What makes it an erotic thriller is that erotics of infidelity at its center—the corners three people will back themselves into because it feels better to risk everything than have something. The point is watching to find out which character will realize that all they want is what someone else tries to tell them they can’t have. 

Finally, please also consider: did you hear that score? Slutty.