‘Motel Destino’: Cannes’ Most Sexually Explicit Movie ‘Would Never Happen in American Cinemas Because There’s So Much Fear and Risk’

Those look for a libido-juicing kick at this year’s Cannes Film Festival surely found it in “Motel Destino,” the sexually explicit erotic thriller from Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz.

Competing in the main competition once again after “Invisible Life” and “Firebrand,” Aïnouz returned to his native Brazil to shoot this perverse psychosexual triangle about the owners of a sex motel along the country’s northeastern Atlantic coast, and the criminal drifter who disrupts their lives. The wild-haired Dayana (Nataly Rocha) operates the Motel Destino with her abusive husband Elias (Fábio Assunção), where she takes up an unhinged affair with Heraldo (Iago Xavier), and amid nonstop sucking and fucking, plot to kill Elias in the grand tradition of the great noirs. Except it’s a noir with a post-Hays Code, liberated twist that has rocked Cannes with its strong, pervasive sexual content, to use the language of the American Motion Picture Association’s ratings board.

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Despite the film’s anarchic sexual energy and unrestrained nudity, Aïnouz, speaking to IndieWire, insists Brazil will be hospitable to such a release, and without censorship. “It’s the country in the world with the biggest gay pride parade, and also the country in the world with the [highest] number of hate killings, so it’s really contradictory,” Aïnouz said. “Legally, I don’t think there is anything that will prevent this movie [from getting a theatrical release] — it’s probably rated 18, because there’s drug, sex, and rock ‘n roll. Not rock n’ roll, but whatever it’s called, techno. I do think we are going to get a rating that’s probably an 18 or above, but I don’t think there’s anything that will prevent us from showing the film, or where I have to do a version that’s less explicit.” “Motel Destino” is currently seeking distributors worldwide.

“This movie is really inspired by a tradition of movies from the 1970s called pornochanchada. They were porn comedies. That’s how Sonia Braga became very famous,” he said. “There’s a history of this in the country. Even if there is more conservativism now because of religion, I think it’s still something that’s very irrelevant, the fact of the amount of sexuality in it.”

When I said “Motel Destino” is certainly the most sexually graphic movie in the Cannes competition this year, Aïnouz said, “Thank you. That’s good.” Did he want to go all the way with sex onscreen here in a Brazilian production because it’s missing pretty much everywhere else?

“My question is, ‘Why not?,’” he said. “I do miss it, and I’ll tell you why. I was really looking at the sort of late, early ‘80s. It was the anniversary of Studio 54 the other day. I really love these really wild and wacko 1980s films from Brian De Palma, and also like [Lawrence Kasdan’s] ‘Body Heat’ and [De Palma’s] ‘Body Double,’ and all that sort of neo-noir that they started. I started thinking, wow, we don’t do movies like that anymore. Not that they’re the best movies in the world, but it’s a really interesting tradition because the body is very present. It’s not completely explicit, but there’s a sense of freedom.”

Aïnouz said the shift toward sexlessness onscreen is not just “because we became more conservative.” Though he shot “Motel Destino” after Brazilian Workers’ Party president Lula da Silva took down the extreme-right Jair Bolsonaro in the 2023 election, the script was written with Mauricio Zacharias (a writer on Ira Sachs’ explicit gay love triangle “Passages” from last year) and Wislan Esmeraldo in 2016.

“When AIDS started, which is exactly at the end of that era [of movies like ‘Body Double’], sexuality became something that’s very much linked to death,” Aïnouz, who is queer, said. “Even though we’re beyond the peak of the AIDS crisis, there is a combination of sexuality and death, but also a sense of conservatism. When you were a huge Hollywood star — with the exception of Demi Moore, which was also very interesting — there is very, very, very few films that are not about sex, but about intimacy. Sex is one of the few moments that you are actually completely intimate with another person. There have been a few decades where it’s not been onscreen because of the star system in a way, but also because of AIDS. Pornography is one thing. Pornography is sex for someone else, and [‘Motel Destino’] is sex between characters. There’s no way to have a better insight into your characters when they have sex.”

Aïnouz, who shot the movie in the oceanside state of Ceará for his first Brazilian production in five years, said, “On one hand, it was yes, let’s just burn down the house. On the other hand, it’s part of something that is coming back. I don’t think this is the only movie — maybe the only movie on the Croisette — doing this to the extent that I am doing … This is also something that would never happen in American cinemas because there’s so much fear and risk involved. It is also a question of an industry where it’s not a question of life and death.”

‘Motel Destino’ (courtesy Santoro)
‘Motel Destino’ (courtesy Santoro)

For Aïnouz, the pressure of box office in Brazil, which offers subsidies for filming, just isn’t there as it is in the U.S. “If you make a movie that doesn’t have to recoup its own money, there’s a lot more freedom.”

But in an emerging American tradition that Europeans and filmmakers elsewhere tend to scoff at, Aïnouz employed an intimacy coordinator, Roberta Serrado, for “Motel Destino’s” wildly unbridled sex scenes. Filming took place at a real hotel — which the team turned into a lurid, spectacular hideout for the characters’ desires, teeming against equatorial heat — after an exhaustive casting search involving hundreds upon hundreds of possible actors. None of whom were turned off by the prospect of sex and nudity onscreen.

“There is a sense of excess everywhere in the film that I didn’t want to control. I just let it be. I know it’s over the top, but I just let it be. It was like doing a first movie again,” he said.

Aïnouz worked with an intimacy coordinator before on last year’s UK-shot Cannes premiere “Firebrand,” about the relationship between Henry VIII (Jude Law) and his last wife Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander). That “was the first time I was confronted with [an intimacy coordinator],” the director said. “I was very doubtful about it, because it is this person between you and your actor, and the relationship between you and your actor has to be profoundly based on trust. We had [an intimacy coordinator on ‘Motel Destino’]. In the beginning, I was really reticent… She was great. She’s not an American intimacy coordinator. She’s a Brazilian intimacy coordinator. She had really interesting ideas about the choreography of the bodies … it was more about, if there was a glitch at some moment, that they had somebody to talk to.”

Intimacy coordinators remain a subject of debate in Hollywood. While Cannes jury president Greta Gerwig praised their function at the opening press conference (it’s “part of building a safe environment”), Michael Douglas recently called intimacy coordinators an attempt for executives to “take control away from filmmakers.”

“Despite the fact that I have never imagined doing something like this, so many people have,” Aïnouz said. “Sometimes I feel really angry, like why do I have to pay the price for something I have never done?,” referring to how widespread on-set abuse in Hollywood spurred the need for intimacy coordinators in the first place. “There’s a level of historical reparation that’s important… The industry in the U.S., and the English-language world, the guys have committed so many crimes that I think there’s a moment where that’s sort of necessary. It really depends on the person.”

“Motel Destino” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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