Luca Guadagnino Is Love | Features

Love wasn’t at the forefront of his mind for his moody, unsettling remake of “Suspiria,” but he successfully combined horror and sex in his next feature. Based on a Camille DeAngelis novel, “Bones and All” starred Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet as lonely cannibals, named Maren and Lee, who encounter one another in the Midwest in the 1980s, two pariahs going on a road trip that develops into a romance. 

This was Guadagnino’s first attempt to examine love in the guise of a pulp genre. (“Bones and All” is easily his most gruesome film.) But look beyond the B-movie bloodshed and what emerges is a delicate tale of survival and seeking someone who truly understands you. Working in the same vein as his 2020 HBO series “We Are Who We Are”—which featured much less feasting on human flesh—Guadagnino crafted a coming-of-age story in which finding love is akin to accepting oneself. “Bones and All” has obvious YA trappings—specifically, the outlandish, melodramatic scenario and the brooding lovers—but Guadagnino took the romance seriously, the film’s graphic violence echoing the intensity of Maren and Lee’s devotion to one another. The world can be a terrifying, cruel place, Guadagnino argued, but if you have someone to share it with, things can be slightly more bearable. 

After the dark thrills of “A Bigger Splash,” the ardor of “Call Me by Your Name” and the frights of “Bones and All,” Guadagnino was due to deliver a pleasurable confection. But in keeping with his commitment to mapping love’s many facets, “Challengers” is hardly an empty diversion. Indeed, this look at best friends (Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor) who pine for the same woman (Zendaya), one of them marrying her but the other perhaps always capturing her heart, is just as insightful and touching as his earlier films regarding how love defines our lives. It’s just that, this time, Guadagnino is having an absolute blast.

Faist and O’Connor star as Art and Patrick, who were once close, both of them dreaming of being tennis champions. It’s now years later, and that dream has come true for Art, who’s married to Tashi (Zendaya), who might have been an all-time great if not for a catastrophic leg injury in college. They haven’t seen Patrick in years—she dated him back in school—but the two men are about to square off in a local tennis meet, their shared past playing out in a series of flashbacks.

We soon learn that, when they first met Tashi, Art and Patrick instantly fell in love with her, desperately trying to get her alone. Cut to an awkward threesome that led to some surprising revelations—Art and Patrick may be straight, but they didn’t mind engaging in a long liplock—and an eventual relationship between Tashi and Patrick. That romance wasn’t built for the long haul, however, and soon after Tashi catches feelings for nice-guy Art. Is it because he was there for her when she got injured? Is it because he seems like the sort of partner worth investing in long-term? “Challengers” never answers those questions, with Patrick occasionally reappearing in the narrative as he too tries to become a tennis pro. Tashi has married Art, but there’s something about Patrick that she can’t let go of. In many ways, the film’s present-day tennis match between the two men—which Tashi watches intently from the stands—is really a final showdown between all three of them.