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  • Ennie Fakoya.

Challengers: A Film about Tennis Explores The Power of Beauty in a Love Triangle.

Updated: Jun 3

A still from the movie Challengers where Tashi, Art, and Patrick are sitting in a room together
Credit: Challengers/MGM/Everett Collection

What role does beauty play in good love triangle? Let's Discuss.

I recently went to a preview screening of Challengers, courtesy of Casual Readers Club and Dark Matter agency, and it was a considerably good time. The expectations I had going into the film were exceeded and I left thinking about Mike Faist’s jawline on the train home.

It’s been weeks since then and there’s a shocking revelation I’ve come to. Love triangles might not be all that bad.

The love triangle is a trope that exists in every kind of media, from books to films to music, and it is always met with mixed feelings. Without the nuance of understanding what each person in said triangle gains, the potential of drama and tension goes down the drain. 

The Triangular Theory of Love

Despite not being about love triangles, Robert Stenberg’s theory on Triangular Love is easily applied to the synergy (or lack thereof) of love triangles. Hofstra University writes about the theory that, “It is important to recognize that a relationship based on a single element is less likely to survive than one based on two or more.”

The three arms of the theory are Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment. In Challengers the three main protagonists fall quite neatly into these categories. Patrick is moved by his passion that inevitably isn’t enough to give him a good career, Art is motivated by his intimate long term relationship with Tashi, which ultimately fails because of a lack of passion, and Tashi’s commitment to Tennis ultimately takes precedence over what she feels for her husband and her lover. 

You could say this theory suggests that all three of them should end up together, but that's a question for another day.

Tashi Duncan: The Intriguing and Beautiful Protagonist

On the topic of Tashi, she is the most interesting character in this film. Zendaya’s acting chops are proven to be ahead of expectations once again, and her commitment to being a little unhinged is very much appreciated. 

Before Challengers, her most notable project was Euphoria, Sam Levinson’s sex crazed HBO series. Despite the confusion of her character in later seasons, her visuals were always committed to the type of role she was playing. Zendaya’s character was meant to look busted. A recovering (kind of) drug addict, trying to not fuck up and ultimately fucking up. She’s hardly going to look a celebrity.

A still from Challengers where Art says "Aren't you everybody's type?"
Credit: Challengers/MGM/Everett Collection

The Power Of Beauty

In Challengers, the opposite is true. There isn’t a single moment where her character, Tashi Duncan, looks bad. The styling is evidently a portrayal of ‘quiet luxury’: Chanel Espadrilles, tailored trousers and a warm-toned no name brand jumper. Her makeup is soft and subtle. She looks rich. Her bobs and slicked back single braid ponytails look rich. The kind of rich that you can’t just access by being hot, you also have to be interesting.

Something that also deserves note is that Zendaya is spectacular at being insane. Not a cartoonish villainy kind of insane, but the subtle eye twitches and her deranged smile after tricking two men into kissing each other. However, her ‘villainy’ doesn’t deter her love interests. It’s a kind of love triangle I don't watch often. Patrick and Art do nothing to check her messiness, they’re silent in the face of Tashi getting exactly what she wants. 

The film is strategic in how it places Tashi above her male counterparts. She is the ideal woman. The first time Art and Patrick lay eyes on her screw-faced, locked in expression, ready to kick ass on a tennis court, they’re enamoured. Feral. It continues like this throughout the film, these two men practically chewing on brick walls just to have her look at them. Tashi is the only woman in their world. 

A still from Jennifer's Body, with test saying "Life is so hard when everyone just wants to have sex with you"
Credit: Jennifer's Body/20th Century Studios/Dir. Karyn Kusama

A Complelling Love Triangle

One would wonder what the end of a love triangle with a beautiful, unhinged woman and two equally messy and willing men would entail. Ending up with only one man? Or both men? Or perhaps, neither of them? Challengers had me expecting a satisfying ending. I had already gone into the film with a bias for Mike Faist despite Art’s immense and obvious male manipulator tactics, so I wanted Tashi to stay with Art. Various theories on their dynamic have sprouted from the depths of Twitter. Tashi's relations with Patrick was her way of winning. In a review by Karsten Runquist, he notes that, “There’s something romantic and sexy about competition in itself.” And competition in film is all about subtext.

In Hung Up, A newsletter by Hunter Harris, Harris, in conversation with Rose Dommu, Rose says a very pivotal line for understanding the love triangle in this film, and really every film that includes the trope: “These boys are archetypes, ciphers. They’re interchangeable. They’re the racket and the ball. Tashi is the player.”

I love subtext. It’s a beautiful thing when pulled off and it is perhaps the only thing that could make me appreciate a love triangle like I did in Challengers. Tashi is indeed the only real player in this film, doing whatever, and whoever she has to in order for her hunger to be satiated. Tashi Duncan wanted a good tennis match. She got it. 

 Guadagnino did a very good job giving us one thing disguised as something else. Some quick observations: The movie is split into a classic 3 act structure. Art and Patrick play three sets of tennis throughout the film. Each set focuses on one arm of the relationship: Patrick and Tashi, Art and Tashi, then Tashi, Patrick, and Art. The angel numbers were working hard here. 

Two stills from the movie Challengers where Tashi and Art are looking at each other, and Tashi and Patrick are looking at each other
Credit: Challengers/MGM/Everett Collection

In Conclusion

This is the shit we like to see. The dedication to creating a good film about sports doesn’t have to end at who wins or who loses the game in front of you. Games are played all the time in love. Really, I think the thrill of a beautiful woman makes the very heart of man despondent and insecure to what a woman, bold, discreet, and unrepentant like Tashi could do purely because she wants to — see. Car scene. 

Using the overarching Tennis match as our final act is filled with way more tension because we know what it means, both to the game, and the characters. 

Love triangles fill me with a certain hatred because why are there two? And why is one always unbelievably annoying? Korean dramas are rife with love triangles where the main female lead has absolutely none of the allure that she’s meant to have for the triangle to have a semblance of intrigue. In Challengers, Tashi is the intrigue we’ve all been waiting for.

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