Simply put, Brazilian motels are places for people to have sex. Everyone knows it, no one objects to it. You pay by the hour and the suite is yours––a big bed, porn on-demand, bring red or blue lighting to illuminate the bodies as they merge––to fulfill your carnal needs. As well as a haven for horny people in transit, the motel is a place to return to and consummate a bond that deepens with every sexual act. Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz zooms in on one such location in Motel Destino, his sixth Cannes entry thus far, and second in the Main Competition. The northeastern coast of Ceará is where the film takes place. The cinematic version of Aïnouz’s home province glistens under the scorching sun of the equator, the sea lapping at the sand while crime is still what a lot of people do to get by: a perfect setting for a vibrant noir. 

Aïnouz has proven himself a versatile director of mainstream (Firebrand) and experimental (The Invisible Life, Mariner of the Mountains) fare alike; it’s only natural to see noir fit him well. And so it does: we are enraptured by the setting and giddy to follow Heraldo (newcomer and Ceará local Iago Xavier) discover the back rooms and corridors of Motel Destino. On a fateful morning he wakes in a suite to find himself robbed and late for a job; a night of pleasure has cost him dearly. From there he’s on the run and––ironically––the only place to grant him shelter is the one that got him in trouble in the first place: the motel. 

Heraldo, who was on his way to “the concrete jungle of São Paulo,” is now stuck at the motel with its owner Elias (Fábio Assunção) and his younger wife Dayana (Nataly Rocha), who immediately takes a liking to the 21-year old stranger. From their first encounter, sparks between Heraldo and Dayana electrify the screen. Since noir operates on a logic of libidinous and violent exchanges, the tension swells and swells between the four walls of Motel Destino. 

On his first morning, Heraldo wakes up despondent and calls for help; Dayana opens the hatch reserved for handling extra towels or toothbrushes and is soon wrangled by the neck. “I’ll snap it,” Heraldo says, as she dares him to do it. At that moment they connect through a dominant-submissive energy that, while left unaddressed, surely alludes to both their pasts. They must have suffered violence and made attempts to channel it, somehow. All the characters are driven by short-term goals: to hide, to debase, but mostly to seek pleasure.

Pleasure-seeking can, of course, be a detour and delay life and its big decisions. Even when a suggestion emerges to kill Elias––and this is no spoiler; genre conventions are simply begging for it to happen––Heraldo and Dayana are still not committing to a future. These are characters operating on short bursts of energy and drive; they are both libido and destrudo personified. None of this takes from any of their alluring screen presence. Quite the opposite––Motel Destino could do with a looser conceptual framework and stay in the carnality of the moment. What is missing from this tropical noir is a surrender to the raw emotions it brings onscreen.

Even though the motel’s name translates as “destiny,” a concept which is also referenced by a character later on in an act of emancipation, this aspiration sits at odds with the immediacy that drives this film. It is almost as if, by ascribing a transcendental virtue to these characters’ longings, we would be betraying their carnal presence, whether together or apart. It’s no coincidence that Motel Destino is lensed by the one-and-only Hélène Louvart, master of the affective shot. Her intense close-ups fill the screen with sweat and pumping desire: destiny is in the here-and-now, where our bodies touch. 

Motel Destino premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B-

No more articles