Smoldering in Cannes | Karim Aïnouz’s ‘Motel Destino’

A sexy Brazilian noir filmed in tones of neon technicolor? Yes please!

Written by

E. Nina Rothe

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There was no shortage of provocative titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Among the films in Competition, one was a horror flick which dealt with a mysterious rejuvenating process that causes all kinds of bodily reactions for the recipient (Demi Moore) in Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance, while another, Jacques Audiard’s thriller Emilia Perez, a Saint Laurent production, featured the story of an attorney who becomes the woman he’s always dreamt he could be to escape gangsters and danger. The title role is played by Karla Sofía Gascón, the first openly trans actor to win a major prize at the festival. But my top prize for sexiest, sultriest and steamiest film in the prestigious Cannes Competition belongs to Karim Aïnouz’s latest, Motel Destino.

You see, the Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker’s upcoming title is so erotic that the even the walls moan in it. The film, sandwiched between his current release Firebrand, which world premiered in Cannes in 2023 and was finally brought to US cinemas this June, and the upcoming Kristen Stewart-starrer Rosebushpruning, marks the Brazilian-born auteur’s return to his roots. As Aïnouz describes his latest film in his director’s statement, this is “the love story between Heraldo [newcomer Iago Xavier] a young rebel, and Dayana [theater actress Nataly Rocha] a woman who dares to defy the rules of society. Their meeting at the Destino Motel triggers an all-consuming passion that calls into question the well-defined future that society had reserved for them.” The film also features Brazilian soap opera star Fábio Assunção. “It’s a movie and I wanted to have a movie star in a way,” Aïnouz confesses to me about casting Assunção as Dayana’s husband Elias, an unconventional villain who isn’t cut from the cloth of Hollywood. I meet up with the busy filmmaker one afternoon, for a face to face interview I managed to arrange on the sly, before the film world premiered on the Croisette.

“I’m very interested in the construction of the villain,” he continues, before posing a rhetorical question, “and don’t you think that the idea of the protagonist, in a very black and white way, is a very Hollywood puritanical way of looking at the world?” Remnants from the Hays Code imposed on the US film industry from 1934 to 1968, no doubt. “I love villains but the more layered they are, the better they are,” the understatedly handsome filmmaker concludes. In Motel Destino several themes are at play. Beyond the sultry affair that develops between the leading characters and the results of their discovery by Elias, at the core of Aïnouz’s work is solidarity. The filmmaker confirms this, “I wanted to make a movie about what I don’t actually have a connection with, in terms of my experience, but have a connection with politically.” He explains things in a conversational tone without any self-importance and in his easygoing voice, with just a hint of a worldly accent. “I’m very connected to solidarity,” he continues, and “I think that we live in a moment in the world where we are fighting against ourselves and we are losing the battles—left, right and center.”

Aïnouz is one of those filmmakers whose imagination is inexhaustible. So much so that upon watching Motel Destino this becomes the kind of cool film which makes you feel like you couldn’t possibly imagine life before it, or cinema following it. The audience watching it, definitely not a film for the prude or fainthearted, will feel like they’re inhabiting the heat, the danger, and the sensuality of the coastal North East Ceará region of Brazil along with the protagonists. As one fellow film critic said “we can even smell the scent of a sex motel,” in the film, and one has to agree.

The filmmaker’s inspiration for this latest masterpiece comes from the Hollywood genre of film noir. “I started to think of The Shining, I started to think of Psycho,” Aïnouz confirms, “I started to think of all these films” which, along with this former architect’s sensibility to the particular architecture of the place, made him choose the setting. The grounds of the Motel Destino is where most of the story takes place. While Aïnouz recognizes that the original “motor hotels” were the American establishments created along highways, with the automobile industry and the needs of drivers in mind, he also confirms that the Brazilian version has always had a slightly different connotation. “In the late Sixties, early Seventies, with the sexual revolution going on, the country was under the very conservative rule of the military, so this became a place mostly for the middle class, to exercise the sexual revolution but outside of the house.” They could pay and have sex there, as Aïnouz continues, and as a result, “more working class people started to use motels—a place where desire is exercised in all its forms and shape. Once you go in there, nobody needs to know and anything can happen.” And anything does happen in the film!

When I inquire if he passed one in particular which inspired him, on the roads around his hometown, Aïnouz very matter of fact replies, “no, I went to many of them as a teenager, to have sex,” a statement which makes us both break out in raucous laughter. The people sitting at the nearby tables turn to see what all the fun is about. We decided to meet up on the front lawn of the Mondrian in Cannes, which somewhat unsuccessfully tried to rebrand itself recently, but which everyone still calls the Grand Hôtel, including Aïnouz. He doesn’t seem fazed by the stares. “No, let’s overshare!” He jokes. “For me it was really interesting, we go to motels, because a lot of people don’t have money to have cars and the public space in Brazil is a space of war—so we went to motels our whole lives, It’s fun, it’s cool,” he declares. Aïnouz is fun, he’s cool. His entire career has been about reinventing cinema, and exploring with each new film what he hadn’t yet done before.

Maybe it is because Aïnouz studied architecture in Brasília and cinema studies at New York University, his mother is Brazilian, his dad from Algeria. He even explored his roots from the Maghreb, North Africa, in his 2021 travel diary documentary Mariner of the Mountain, a personal favorite. But going back to the beginning of his career, Aïnouz’s Cannes debut feature in 2002 depicted the 20th Century queer Brazilian cult figure of João Francisco dos Santos known as Madame Satã, also the film’s title. It famously saw half the audience walk out of the premiere, incensed by a tensely homoerotic sex scene. Aïnouz followed that with several other powerful films like Love for Sale, which screened in Venice in 2006, the 2009 drama I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You, the 2008-2010 series Alice for HBO Brazil and the Un Certain Regard top prize winner in Cannes in 2019, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, set in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s, where two sisters struggle against repression and bigotry in a patriarchal era.

This play on women and patriarchy is something that is a bit of a leitmotif in Aïnouz’s work. It continues through to the film in US cinemas now, Firebrand, which the filmmaker explains “is about the survivor, it’s about Catherine Parr but it’s also about this monster patriarch king man, who was Henry VIII.” Firebrand stars Alicia Vikander as Parr and Jude Law as Henry VIII. The theme is also at the center of the upcoming Rosebushpruning, as Aïnouz confirms “it’s very much the subject of the next movie, this doing an anatomy of the patriarch.” Born in the mid-60’s in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, Aïnouz was raised by a single mother, along with his maternal grandmother. “There was a lot of my mother in that character,” he says about Catherine Parr, “my mother was somebody who was obsessed with education, she wasn’t rich but she said ‘what I can give you is education’. She was very enlightened and there were a lot of elements that also inhabited Catherine. She was not a queen but you know, I didn’t always look at Catherine Parr as a queen.” When I ask the filmmaker if he writes characters with himself in mind, as often writers will confess to doing, he replies confidently. “No I’m not aware of that,” he says, continuing “I think I have a very rich repertoire because of the different cultures and my life trajectory. I’m thinking that I’m more at the service of my characters—but I also don’t judge how my own personal experience can leak into my characters.”

Apart from the American noir genre, Aïnouz was also inspired by the Brazilian “porn comedy” films that emerged when the Cinema Novo movement of the 1960’s was suppressed by the arrival of the military rule in his home country. “The idea of noir in the sun was very interesting to me,” he confesses, “and the other thing was finding the local tropes of what would be a Brazilian Noir.” He adds, “I think, coming from the global south, the idea of genre is very recent. They expect our stories to be about reality which is so exhausting—drama, reality, social issues. Why can’t you do a science fiction in Cairo—do you know what I mean? We should have the right to do it, instead we have to do drama.” About the “porn comedy” genre, Aïnouz explains further that “a lot of those authors,” from the Cinema Novo days, “couldn’t make their political films anymore and went into porn comedies.” He confessed that there is one “I’d love to remake called Giselle (1980 by Victor di Mello)—a remake of Emanuelle—and it’s a story between a blonde girl and a woman of color who arrives in town. And they become lovers and have sex with the mother and it’s really crazy. It’s bonkers!”

But that’s how the questions of class struggle, religion, color, social status, and monetary status are dealt with, really subtly, in these films, just as they are tackled in Motel Destino. You concentrate so hard on all the sex, humidity and neon colors, you may forget that at the center of it all is a social drama, about a boy, Heraldo, from the wrong side of the tracks who keeps facing death—as he confesses in his final monologue. And the woman who finds her hero within him.

Motel Destino opens this summer in Brazilian cinemas, and has been bought for distribution throughout the UK and France. The film is still awaiting US distribution.

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Flaunt Magazine, Cannes Film Festival, Karim Aïnouz, Motel Destino, Iago Xavier, Nataly Rocha, Fábio Assunção, Art, E. Nina Rothe