Credit: Santora/Cannes Film Festival
by Caleb Hammond Featured Film

Motel Destino — Karim Aïnouz [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 30, 2024

The erotic thriller has encountered a resurgence in popularity of late, partly due to how well the genre plays at home, making it ideal escapism to explore alone during the pandemic. “Tropical noir” Motel Destino has director Karim Aïnouz returning to his native Brazil after a disappointing foray into English language with Firebrand (releasing in the U.S. in a few weeks). A small, slight erotic thriller, Motel Destino works to update classic noir narratives like The Postman Always Rings Twice mostly through its unique setting and vibrant color-palette. In fact, Motel Destino’s visual storytelling reaches inspiring heights in its opening act, though the following two hours never quite match. 

8mm footage introduces us to two men frolicking on the beach in speedos. They are brothers, not lovers, and if they are to leave this beachfront town together, they must complete one more job for Bambina, a local crime boss who is also a known regional painter. As last jobs go, it’s suitably dangerous, but what choice do the pair have? The night before the job, one of the brothers, Heraldo (Iago Xavier), irresponsibly parties at a club and takes a beautiful woman to a love motel (the titular Motel Destino) for a night of passionate sex. (This is the first of two instances in which Heraldo’s lovemaking inspires a woman to declare their love for him.) The next morning, she’s absconded, his wallet emptied and the room tab unpaid. Frantic, he escapes the locked room and rushes out to learn his brother was forced to do the final job alone, and was killed by the target’s armed security. The storytelling economy in this opening act is just disorienting enough to keep an audience on their toes as to what’s transpiring scene-to-scene.

From there, a distraught Heraldo makes the curious decision to go back to Motel Destino to lay low for a while, not as a patron but as an employee. The film then settles down in this motel, and the weird, sex-filled world it occupies, for the rest of the runtime. The distinctly Brazilian world of a love motel grants specificity to an otherwise routine neo-noir narrative setup, in which Heraldo falls for the motel co-owner Dayana (Nataly Rocha) and plots to murder her abusive husband Elias (popular Brazilian actor Fábio Assunção in a standout performance).

Xavier’s performance as Heraldo mostly centers on his role as a symbol of youth that others can project fantasies upon. Dayana and Elias quickly take to his lust for life, which can’t be cooped up, even when confined to the back hallways of the Destino. Xavier doesn’t offer much interiority to latch onto beyond wide-eyed passion, but the narrative doesn’t require much more from him. Rocha and Assunçãi bring more nuance to their roles as a married couple stuck in an unhappy co-dependent relationship, tied together by the little motel they run. 

After lensing Invisible Life and Firebrand, French cinematographer Hélène Louvart reteams with Aïnouz to bathe Motel Destino in fuzzy neon colors. In a clever reveal, Motel Destino’s muted exterior at night is revealed to be a vibrant magenta the next morning when Heraldo returns in daylight. Everything is so uniformly awash in this palette — like a grainy 16mm The Beach Bum — that it’s fair to wonder exactly how many exterior sets were painted for the film. Put more simply: combined with a pulsing techno soundtrack, Motel Destino is a very vibe forward film. 

With such codified archetypes and narrative tropes in place, the fun in noirs and neo-noirs comes in how they play with audience expectations and knowledge of these genre fixtures. It’s unfortunate, then, that there aren’t many tricks up Motel Destino’s sleeves. Dayana’s potential as a double-crossing femme fatale is squandered, and coupled with a 115-minute runtime and the one-location setting, Motel Destino forgoes what could be a tight, sleazy erotic thriller for something more shaggy, full of character motivations at key intervals that don’t always pass muster upon a little considered reflection.

Motel Destino does take care to hit every level of sex representation on screen: There’s discussion of sex. There are auditory depictions, in that the background audio track consists almost entirely of unseen people going at it, loudly moaning behind the private doors of this love motel. And occasionally, curiosity gets the best of them, with Elias and Heraldo peaking in on their clients through a latticed room service window, adding some old-fashioned voyeurism in for good measure. And then there is of course plenty of actual sex and nudity, the chief ingredient missing in contemporary U.S. cinema we often miscategorize as “horny.” Those movies often only include frank discussions of sex without the actual act itself (Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers offering a recent sexless example), and delivering sex across all these levels ensures a genuinely sordid ride that pushes up against the chaste conservatism of contemporary American cinema. Chastity has never been an issue for Aïnouz, and like 2019’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Motel Destino demonstrates his affinity for a sweaty, sex-filled romp featuring working-class Brazilians. 

But despite its refreshingly liberated approach to sex, issues remain. Following a fully nude extended chase scene through the desert — one that reads a little too intentionally provocative — Motel Destino ends on Heraldo’s voiceover, which attempts to make a broader point about class survival in Brazil. But this sign-off feels merely tacked on in execution, an effort to grant the preceding serviceable, albeit slight, thriller more thematic weight than it actually earns. It’s a last-ditch attempt at poignancy that’s indicative of the film’s other littered ills, managing only to diminish some of the goodwill built up by the good-natured sex and violence Motel Destino otherwise trades in.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 4.