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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Alison Taylor, Assistant Professor, Bond University

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

At the crux of the critical response to Luca Guadagnino’s new movie Challengers is one word: “sexy”.

The film charts a love triangle between three up-and-coming tennis players: Tashi (Zendaya), and her dual (and duelling) admirers. Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) are close friends, and vying for the attention of the same woman has its risks. Tashi tells us more than once she is “not a homewrecker” – though she seems to enjoy the power that comes with being desired.

It’s surprising that, in an age when pornography has never been so readily accessible, saucy movies can still create such a buzz. It’s perhaps even more surprising Challengers all but eschews sex entirely, yet every frame feels laden with it. The film is full of kinetic energy, but it’s not between character’s bodies.

So why is Challengers causing such a stir?

The state of play

For starters, Challengers is riding a welcome wave of rebellion.

As film expert Barry Forshaw points out, sex has been on a sharp decline in mainstream cinema in recent decades. Reasons include pressure to export to markets even more conservative than the United States (most notably China).

Hollywood has also been gravitating towards huge-budget superhero franchise films rather than mid-budget dramas that might be more likely to tell romantic stories. #MeToo has also been cited as a cultural phenomenon that has seen sex and nudity in high-grossing US film decline almost 40% since 2016.

But the tide is changing. Psychosexual thriller Saltburn (2023) and Frankenstein fantasy Poor Things (2023) generated a buzz for their sex scenes. Kristen Stewart’s performance in steamy lesbian crime thriller Love Lies Bleeding (2024) has reminded audiences what it feels like to be hot under the collar.

With this raft of films, some are speculating Hollywood’s latest era of chastity may be over.

But where these films are comparatively explicit, in Challengers, sex is illusive – it’s interrupted, elided, or happens off-screen.

So what makes a film ‘sexy’?

No, it’s not just sex. And not all film sex is sexy.

As film scholar Linda Williams points out, it’s complicated. “Sex in movies is especially volatile: it can arouse, fascinate, disgust, bore, instruct, and incite,” she writes.

Or, as Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss’ painfully awkward encounter taught us in Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) – it can make us cringe. In one of the most unsexy scenes imaginable, the pair’s one night stand is deliberately choreographed to make it as unflattering (and hilarious) as possible. Östlund draws out the discomfort even after the sex is finished.

Paul Verhoeven’s Razzie Award winning romp Showgirls (1995) is also evidence there is more to “sexy” than beautiful people and a dash of desire.

As famous for its absurdity as for its explicitness, the movie about an exotic dancer’s rise to stardom in Las Vegas has all the ingredients of a sexy film.

But the finished product is more likely to elicit laughter than fireworks. In one memorable scene, Kyle MacLachlan and Elizabeth Berkley share an evening of passion in the pool so strenuous fans have playfully dubbed it “when flipper meets stripper”.

On the other hand, when the right balance is struck, a sex scene can be iconic. Some readers will recall the rumours that scene in Don’t Look Now (1973) was a little too convincing. Others may remember George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the sequence paying homage to it in Out of Sight (1998).

When Ryan Gosling looks at Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love (2011) or La La Land (2016), we believe it. When Andrew Scott holds Paul Mescal in his gaze in All Of Us Strangers (2023) or when Barry Keoghan looks at, well, anyone in Saltburn, embers ignite. It is testament to her talent as a performer that Scarlett Johansson’s smouldering voice is enough to keep us enthralled in Her (2013) even though she never appears on screen.

Chemistry is essential, but it’s hardly a paint-by-numbers exercise.

Does a film need sex to be ‘sexy’?

The response to Challengers certainly suggests not. Guadagnino, whose previous films include A Bigger Splash (2015) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), has built a reputation for sensual cinema.

Those familiar with his work will know it doesn’t take on-screen hanky-panky to make a film alluring. The camera’s caress in I Am Love (2009) is enough to make Tilda Swinton eating a prawn feel erotically charged.

With Challengers, Guadignino does for the erotic drama what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) did for horror. He promises the audience everything but knows power is in suggestion. Challengers’ achievement is in capturing the dynamics of sexual tension. It traces the power plays, negotiations, mistrust and rivalry in which an exchange of looks feels as graphic as what those looks imply.

Then, when the pressure is at fever pitch but unrealised, characters must channel it into their game. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shoots tennis matches with an intimacy rivalling any sex scene. Vivid close ups, slow motion, sweat-soaked: these matches are proximate, tense – and the closest Challengers gets to letting off steam.

In an era when online pornography leaves nothing to the imagination, audiences have not lost their appetite for sexy movies. These films create cultural moments people love to feel a part of.

In the 1990s it was Sharon Stone’s famous leg-crossing in Basic Instinct. Today’s audiences have Keoghan’s scandalous bath scene in Saltburn.

Our conversations about these movies, the sex and what that sex means, are more likely to occur on TikTok than around the water cooler.

But it’s precisely because movies are fantasies we experience collectively that we continue to need them.

The Conversation

Alison Taylor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. The steamiest movie of the year has almost no sex in it. How did Challengers do it? –