Two breakneck motorcycle rides — one across the sand dunes of a Brazilian wind farm, the other into the foggy abyss of a German autobahn — bookend Karim Ainouz’s stunning fifth feature, “Praia do Futuro,” and while the riders disembark for the intervening film, the exhilarating forward momentum between these scenes is near-constant. Part tactile gay romance, part inquisitive journey into self, this spare but sensually saturated story of lives lost and found in Fortaleza and Berlin frequently seems on the verge of losing control (apt, perhaps, for a study of lives lived on multiple edges), but its visual and sonic verve more than compensate for some overworked symbolism. LGBT-focused fests and distribs will rightly pounce, but Ainouz’s ultra-chic pic is propulsive enough to make waves in other arthouse markets.
From its florid chapter headings to the umpteenth application of David Bowie’s ubiquitous anthem “Heroes” over the closing credits, “Praia do Futuro” boasts any number of elements that would prove irksome or uninspired in films with a less generously romantic spirit or a less muscular formal sensibility. Ainouz, who broke out in 2002 with his zesty debut feature, “Madame Sata,” but is here making his first competish appearance at one of the European majors, builds his films strong enough to sustain a bit of kitsch — the script may hammer home its land-and-water metaphors for all they’re worth, but the sheer heft of the feelings at play here override such qualms. Rather like the two strapping lovers at the center of his narrative, Ainouz’s visual storytelling says most when it speaks least.
Press notes proudly proclaim that “Praia do Futuro” is the first ever co-production between Brazil and Germany; certainly, both countries’ tourist boards should be happy with its sun-baked depiction of the former’s coastline (the film is named for a particularly idyllic beach) and mistily atmospheric vision of the latter’s capital. On a more personal level, however, this alliance seems significant for the Brazilian-born, Berlin-based director, who may or may not be revealing something of himself in his protagonist’s extended journey.
The first of three chapters, set in Brazil and titled “The Drowner’s Embrace,” wastes little time lighting the spark between Donato (Wagner Moura, never better), a lifeguard at the titular beach, and Konrad (Clemens Schick), an ex-military thrill-seeker from Germany, in circumstances that don’t seem terribly conducive to romance. Konrad and his holiday companion are caught in a nasty undercurrent while taking a casual dip; Donato successfully saves the former, but Konrad’s friend is swallowed by the sea. Konrad seeks immediate solace in sex with his rescuer, though when their relationship deepens — and it becomes clear that his friend’s body will not be found any time soon — he invites Donato to return with him to Germany. Though it entails leaving behind his frail mother and adoring 10-year-old kid brother, Ayrton (Savio Ygor Ramos), Donato impulsively accepts.
Chapter two, “A Hero Cut in Half,” observes the lovers as they settle together in the colder but more liberating climes of Berlin. Donato, who appears to have been living closeted in Brazil, becomes fully acquainted with his sexuality — though the pull of his family, and the lure of the beach, tempt him to return home. “Everything will be fine when the future arrives,” says a kindly bartender during one of Donato’s bouts of homesickness. The third chapter, “A German-Speaking Ghost,” suggests it may not be as simple as all that: Jumping eight years forward in the narrative, we find the lovers separated but brought together by an agitating figure from the past.
Ace lenser Ali Olcay Gozcaya is as responsible as the writers for defining this clean three-act structure, as his dramatic shifts in light and palette imply as much about the characters’ psychologies as they do their surroundings. The raw rush of sexual attraction in Brazil is rendered in hot primaries, evolving to manifold foggy grays and spots of industrial brightness as the action shifts to Europe; blue, it turns out, is both the warmest and most frigid color. At its lushest and most kinetic, the cinematography conspires with the astonishingly layered score by Hauschka (an alias for German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann) to create positively narcotic surges in emotion and sensation, mirroring the characters’ own emotional peaks and troughs.
Down to the geometric, pop-hued credits, not one aesthetic element of the film’s construction has been ill considered, though stylistically, Ainouz is something of a magpie. There’s a touch of Jacques Audiard to the film’s oblique, movement-driven opening, and Michelangelo Antonioni to its later, chillier stretches of landscape-fixated mysticism. (“The Disappearing Ocean” might have been a more evocative title.) It’s certainly hard not to think of Claire Denis and the queer, sinewy physicality of “Beau travail” during a mesmerizing sequence of lifeguards practising calisthenics on the beach — Hauschka’s score, too, has its Tindersticks-esque stretches. Like the best appropriators, however, Ainouz works any such scraps into a patchwork that is consistently his own. This is filmmaking that responds to other film much as it does to existing music or architecture — part of a moving world, there to be absorbed and reflected.