Home Entertainment ‘Motel Destino’ Review: Karim Aïnouz’s Horned-Up Neon-Noir Keeps Its Cool While Getting...

‘Motel Destino’ Review: Karim Aïnouz’s Horned-Up Neon-Noir Keeps Its Cool While Getting Hot and Heavy

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Welcome to the Motel Destino, which may be some distance from the Hotel California, but is very much programmed to receive — or give, if that’s your preference. With mirrors on the ceiling but definitely no pink champagne on ice, the run-down roadside sex den that houses most of Karim Aïnouz’s Olympically horny new film isn’t so much a palace of pleasure as a this-will-do hideaway for the illicitly amorous couples (or throuples, or more, no judgment here) checking into any of its hastily wiped-down rooms. It’s a dream setting, however, for one of the most sweat-drenched neo-noirs — or neon-noirs, in this case, given its eye-scorching tropical palette — to hit the screen since Kathleen Turner and William Hurt soaked through their shirts in “Body Heat.”

As an erotic thriller, it’s more preoccupied with the first half of that term than the second, and that’s just fine. Slow like honey and heavy with mood — to quote Fiona Apple, though she left out the relevant descriptors “oozy” and “sticky” — “Motel Destino” is correspondingly light on plot, to the point that it feels like a cheeky genre experiment: a film in which all the noirish types and tropes are present and correct, but everyone’s just too damn hot and bothered and oversexed to get much killing done. That may be frustrating to some, though once you submit to the film’s fevered sensual energy, it becomes its own kind of blast, throbbing with sound and color and movement, and genuinely hilarious in its unabashed lubriciousness. For Brazilian director Aïnouz, it marks a welcome return to home turf — and to flamboyant bird-of-paradise form — after last year’s handsome but stifled U.K. historical drama “Firebrand.”

The home turf in question isn’t just Brazil, but specifically the coast of the northeastern Cearà region, where Aïnouz was born and raised, and which he last depicted on screen in 2014’s gorgeous queer romance “Futuro Beach.” Written with contributions from the director and from regular Ira Sachs collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, Wislan Esmeraldo’s lean script heavily recalls various iterations of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in its setup, only to then teasingly leave us waiting for the doorbell. Young, dumb and full of you-know-what, 21-year-old Heraldo (Iago Xavier) is restless to escape his small beachside town for brighter lights, and a planned heist with his brother Jorge will finally make it happen. The film is sketchy on the details of the hit; the crime here is beside the point.

The important thing is that the job is botched — largely because Heraldo, having drunkenly checked into Motel Destino the night before with a thieving stranger, got cleaned out, missed his wakeup call, and never showed up, while Jorge got himself shot dead. With a number of very pissed-off heavies on his tail, and none of the cash with which he was supposed to make his grand escape, Heraldo is forced to go on the run. But running isn’t really his thing, and the motel is right there, so he asks salty-sexy manager Dayana (Nataly Rocha) if he can hide out there for a while as a general handyman. World-weary and briskly capable, Dayana isn’t much in need of extra assistance. But if you ran a literal sex motel and a guy who’s the very picture of Latin-lover virility asked to hang around, well, you’d probably let him, and so she does.

Unluckily for Heraldo, Dayana isn’t Destino’s sole proprietor. She runs the place with her grizzled, volatile husband Elias (Fabio Assunção), who exudes his own kind of lecherous musk around the younger man, but that doesn’t mean he favors complete your-love-is-my-love sexual freedom in this very particular workplace. The base attraction between Heraldo and Dayana is immediate, though the wonderful Rocha plays her with the right balance of sexual abandon and emotional caution: She’s old enough and jaded enough not to be besotted.

Still, regular rounds of afternoon, evening or midnight delight with a willing young stallion rather perk up a day otherwise heavy on balancing books and cleaning up others’ bodily fluids. They’re furtive, but the motel doesn’t give them that many places to hide, just as Elias is stupid but not that stupid. This isn’t headed anywhere good. It’s just that no one in this hot-pink hothouse — brilliantly conceived by production designer Marcos Pedroso as a kind of Ricardo Legorreta modernist temple built on the budget of a holiday cabin — has the energy or initiative to draw up a clear-headed plan of action or escape.

What they do have the energy and inclination to do is get it on, and how. The film’s repeated scenes of rutting, grunting, full-blooded intercourse — between the principals, between the motel guests, between a pair of mangy old donkeys in Elias’ backyard — are treated as pleasingly, unsensationally ordinary, which isn’t to say they aren’t a turn-on. Working in the same humidly saturated tones they brought to 2019’s “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão,” minus any of that film’s cooling greens or non-electric blues, Aïnouz and cinematographer Hélène Louvart shoot sex as sex, not porn, revelling in the inelegant thwack of flesh on flesh when two people are really at it, the palpable combined itch of perspiration and sunburn, the tensing and slacking of muscles through climax.

“Motel Destino” is not a film, then, for viewers who fret about sex scenes driving the story forward; the sex scenes are the story here, and the drive, for that matter. These characters may not run terribly deep, but there’s something oddly poignant, amid all the delicious sleaze on display, in the film’s portraiture of dead-end lives with few plans for the future but to f—— the pain away. Heraldo may not start the film with this mentality, but such is the debilitating spell cast by this neon-and-nylon non-destination: In its own way, for those who spend more than the minimum time in its stuffy by-the-hour rooms, the Motel Destino has the mythic presence and hold of the Overlook or, once again, the Hotel California. You can get off any time you like, but you can never leave.