Cannes 2024 Review: Karim Aïnouz’s Sensuous “Motel Destino” Offers a Hell of a Hideaway

The line between heaven and hell can be a thin one and not knowing which side you’re on proves to be an electrifying force in “Motel Destino,” Karim Aïnouz’s rapturous thrill ride centering on two lost souls navigating a purgatory that takes physical shape in a roadside love hotel that both are looking to check out of. Heraldo (Iago Xavier) never had any intention of checking in, but after a one-night stand in which he’s left with a bill that he cannot afford, he’s required to work off his debt for the motel’s proprietors Elias (Fábio Assunção) and Dayana (Nataly Rocha), who both can’t be upset about what they’re owed when having a helping hand around to clean up the mess that’s left day in and day out is a welcome occurrence, and it becomes an unlikely safe haven for Heraldo since he’s on the run from a local crime boss and he’s in the last place anybody would want to be seen.

Despite the hothouse colors endemic to Aïnouz’s native Brazil that cinematographer Hélène Louvart brings to full boil, the motel is designed similarly to a cold prison, in which the staff communicates with guests via a small window that opens out to a long hallway that Heraldo and Dayana pace, just waiting to pick up soiled sheets and wipe away traces of leftover cocaine. The building is an echo chamber of passionate sex, but there’s little love there, either amongst the people having it or as it becomes clear for Dayana, who’s been unhappy in her marriage for some time. She may not share much in common with Heraldo, who at 21 has no commitments to speak of, but the feeling of being trapped comes to her just as readily and it’s only a matter of time before the two give in to the same instinct that’s all around them for some temporary relief.

It would be enough just to linger in the vibe Aïnouz sets with a beguiling reverb-heavy score from Amin Bouhafa and Benedikt Schiefer that reminds of Angelo Badalamenti’s collaborations with David Lynch and sweaty, intense visuals that are as refreshing as a steam bath even as the characters wallow in filth, but the director and co-writers Wislan Esmeraldo and Mauricio Zacharias have other ideas when Dayana starts to wonder what life might be like without Elias in the picture. Underneath all the exposed skin in “Motel Destino” are the bones of a classic noir and rarely have so many sleazy details added up to something so sophisticated as Heraldo and Dayana plot an escape, not necessarily being on the same page.

Even before they can make a run for it, “Motel Destino” has a live-wire energy to it with characters whose instincts and needs are almost primal and Aïnouz, as he’s been able to channel since his 2002 debut “Madame Sata,” shows his gift for demonstrating where passion overtakes practicality when completely irrational choices start to make a lot of sense for those involved. Some of the most entertaining scenes are the simplest when characters so thoroughly operate in their own realities such as when Elias outlines his dreams for a hotel like the ones he’s seen in Rio, sincerely hoping to install new beds for “premium fucking,” not unlike Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner once wistfully hoping for an Oscar in “Boogie Nights” for one of his adult films. Both modesty and modest goals would seem to be overlooked in a film that takes such wild swings, but in the end “Motel Destino” is overwhelming because of its ability to speak to the purest of human desires and connection.

“Motel Destino” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23rd at noon at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, 3 pm at Cineum Imax, 7 pm at Licorne and 9:30 pm at Agnes Varda Theatre, May 24th at 1 pm at Cineum Aurore and May 25th at 4 pm at Cineum Aurore.

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