‘Motel Destino’ Review: Karim Aïnouz’s Erotically Charged Thriller Has Plenty of Visual Spark But Fizzles Out

Cannes 2024: Though its colors often pop off the screen, its direction, writing and performances remain disappointingly flat

"Motel Destino," Cannes
"Motel Destino," Cannes

Love, sex, power and violence are once again all part of Karim Aïnouz’s latest film, “Motel Destino,” just as they were with his previous, “Firebrand,” even if they are set worlds apart. Whether this will be appealing to those familiar with the filmmaker depends both on taste and how much they’re looking for something to grab them just as the characters all grab each other. 

While it never lacks for colorful visuals and steamy sequences, the most memorable part of the “Motel Destino” is how stripped of life it feels. For all that happens in it, from the looming sinister specter of murder to the many sexual escapades, it never rises above a dull background roar. There is much that is vibrant to look at, but even that grows tired with nothing else to lean on. 

Premiering Wednesday evening in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, we get taken to the beautiful coasts of Ceará, Brazil, where tragedy is about to strike. Heraldo (Iago Xavier) quickly learns that his brother has died while he was spending a night at the titular Motel Destino. Though he didn’t pull the trigger, he is blamed as he didn’t back him up during a planned job that went terribly awry. Thus, he must go into hiding. What better place to do this than the sexual getaway he was just at? Containing private room after private room for paying customers, Heraldo shows up and asks if they need someone to work there. He’s desperate and thus willing to do just about anything. Owned by couple Dayana (Nataly Rocha) and Elias (Fábio Assunção), it requires near-constant cleaning and maintenance. Heraldo will spend the rest of the film doing just that while coming to learn much about those with whom he works. 

Of course, we discover all is not well in this supposed sexual paradise. Then, Dayana and Heraldo begin sleeping together. They do so while hiding from the abusive Elias who has already threatened Dayana before when she tried to get away. At the same time, Heraldo is fearful his horny hideaway could be found when any of his former colleagues in this vaguely sketched criminal underworld come knocking. There is potential to be found in this premise, but the devil lies in the details of its execution. While there have been many more polarizing premieres at the festival this year, “Motel Destino” is one of the few that just feels most like a dud. It is largely derivative, falling into being the worst thing a film like this could be: forgettable.

This is a shame, as the colors of this world all feel alive and rich even as it remains confined. The issue isn’t the primarily single location, as other festival premieres like “The Substance” and “Armand” found plenty of interesting things to do while thriving within their confined spaces. No, the bigger issue is that “Motel Destino” remains content to just cycle through repetitive scenes one after another with only occasional flashes of formal disruptions via Heraldo’s nightmares. Such moments might carry some weight if Xavier wasn’t so stiff (not like that) in a role already underwritten. Even when things get tense in the finale where we wander into the darkness of the surrounding environment, the characters are so thin it’s remarkable they aren’t blown away. 

Though it was all increasingly tiresome before, the film saves its biggest faceplant for the end. After things inevitably unravel, we are treated to a monologue that explains what exactly we are supposed to be taking away from the superficial, scattered and sordid affair. It’s a lack of confidence that provides one closing disappointment to a film that already accumulated plenty. Even when it finally checks out, there is little chance you’ll remember much of your stay.

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