‘Motel Destino’ Review: Sex and Nihilism All the Time in Karim Aïnouz’s Neon Collision of ‘Crash’ and ‘Body Heat’

Nihilism and neon-popped lust collide in Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s Portuguese-language “Motel Destino,” set in a love motel so sordid that lay tourists should best avoid it, and only criminals and castaways are likely to check in. The “Invisible Life” director’s steamy psychosexual thriller set in the sweatiest armpit of the equator speaks melodrama and noir but with a Brazilian accent, Aïnouz returning to his home state of Ceará to shoot on his own turf for the first time in five years. The writer/director lifts from classics such as Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” and Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” but also from ‘70s Brazilian sex comedies to tell a perverse yarn of extramarital betrayal turned murderous. But while the pre-“Body Heat” noirs he’s channeling could only suggest rather than spell out sex, Aïnouz goes graphic — and relentlessly — in an arthouse-only erotic genre piece that will alienate just as many audiences as it enthralls. It’s sexy, disturbing, yet cold despite the simmering equatorial heat and hot lava of freely flowing attractions.

After an epilepsy warning that turns out to be very necessary given the flashing, thumping lighting — as if Aïnouz is taking a blacklight to human sexuality and distorting it even more — to come, the film opens on 22-year-old Heraldo (Iago Xavier) and his brother. They live along the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil’s northeast corner with their criminal family, led by a dowdy matriarch not intent on letting them leave even as Heraldo dreams of starting out on his own elsewhere as a mechanic. But sex, drugs, and other pleasures also interest Heraldo, who goes out clubbing one night and is taken back to the Motel Destino by a woman who leaves him there, stuck with the bill.

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Emerging into the sunlight, Heraldo discovers on his walk of shame that his brother has been killed in a botched robbery attempt. All we see is the brother’s corpse being zipped up into a body bag, Aïnouz not keen on sentimentality at any turn. But Heraldo is haunted by increasingly weird, almost shamanistic visions of his brother and others, like sleep paralysis demons for the spiritually adrift.

Now on the run from whoever killed his brother and eventually from his crime family, Heraldo heads back to the Motel Destino, which exists behind a fortress of security and a wall of closed circuit TVs. And so where else to take sanctuary in this evidently too-small town in which the walls are closing in all around Heraldo?

The motel is run by the wild-haired and free-spirited Dayana (Nataly Rocha), who operates the rent-a-room with her gruesome husband, Elias (Fábio Assunção), whom you can tell immediately must be abusive. Rocha and Assunção are the more decorated actors in the trio, both with a wide range of Brazilian film and TV credits, while Xavier was a discovery from more than 500 actors screened to play Heraldo. He has an animal intensity — not to mention an unsmotherable libido as Heraldo and Dayana fast jump into a clandestine extramarital affair. Though how behind-closed-doors can their daily fucking possibly be when each room in the Motel Destino has either a viewing aperture into or a camera turned on it? Meanwhile, the nonstop sounds of sexual moaning, men and women writhing around in pleasure as if in hot mud, suggest there’s not much in the way of privacy here amid round-the-clock fucking and sucking.

Aïnouz, working with the great maker of sensuous images Hélène Louvart (“Beach Rats,” “Disco Boy”) wants to show love and sex in all their uninhibited, undulating, 16mm glory. Especially at a moment where sex really does only seem to exist in the arthouse, and is all but verboten in the multiplexes. Not that “Motel Destino” will ever play a multiplex — it’s a dangerous, noxious gas can of a psychosexual thriller, lurid and as pitch-dark as the desert at night. The film radiates a nihilistic energy that may have not been Aïnouz’s intention, which was a celebratory portrait of lust through the prism of noir.

More death starts to wend its way into the hotel. One of the Frenchmen responsible for killing Heraldo’s brother dies of an apparent Viagra overdose, and Heraldo, Dayana, and Elias bury his body in the middle of nowhere, the trouble of dealing with the man’s death the legal way too threatening to the kinky eden they’ve created. If you can call it that. The bordello, fever-dreamed up by Aïnouz with the help of production designer Marcos Pedroso, while all dressed in pink and oranges and blues, each room with its own vibe, is no Madonna Inn. As “Motel Destino” spins deeper toward the drain of darkness, the Motel rather starts to feel like whatever circle of hell is the most sex-crazed.

If you know your noir, then you know Dayana is going to enlist her young lover to help off her husband. But Elias is a brute, not a moron, and their plan won’t glide along effortlessly. All three actors are game for literally anything — the movie ends with almost everybody top-to-toe naked and in plain sight for all to see in a several-minute sequence. “Motel Destino” feels almost iconoclastic in its rangy, feral energy, with the unafraid aura of a ‘60s European art film crossed with a porno one. Emotionally, Aïnouz’s is not as engaging as “Motel Destino” hopes to be even despite some phantasmagoric, hallucinatory images of grief in dreamscape — but images and feelings in the abstract those are, more than visceral ones felt onscreen. “Motel Destino” takes a highway exit off David Cronenberg’s “Crash” into nihilistic country, where sex and death collide like a car crash, and feeling was left back at the front desk.

Grade: B

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

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