The original Italian title of “A Five-Star Life” makes more sense: “Viaggio Sola,” or “Solo Travel.” Maria Sole Tognazzi has directed a short, piquant movie about the difference between loneliness and being alone.
Irene (Margherita Buy) has a comfortable, financially satisfying if perhaps sterile life: She travels among five-star hotels of the world as a “mystery guest,” gauging whether they meet the highest standards of cleanliness, prompt and attentive service, etc. (The script by Tognazzi, Francesca Marciano and Ivan Cotroneo doesn’t make clear the nature of her employer.)
Sometimes she envies her easily flustered sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi), especially when she visits her two little nieces. Sometimes she’s drawn back to Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), the ex-lover she broke up with 12 years ago, though he has impregnated another woman and is trying to figure out how to be a dad.
Mostly, she jets from Paris to Gstaad to the Italian Alps, white-gloving hotel picture frames and eavesdropping on waiters to see whether they treat wealthy guests better than humbler ones. She’s critical but fair, thorough but not obsessive. But is she happy?
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At first, the film suggests she isn’t. She seems a bit troubled when a friendly Frenchman in Morocco spends an evening with her but won’t spend the night, because he’s “very married and very faithful.” She’s positively stricken when a budding camaraderie with a philosophic British anthropologist (Lesley Manville) gets cut short.
Yet we get the sense this woman may need to be alone. An intimate connection may be the equivalent of a beautiful dress in a shop window: appealing at a slight distance, but not comfortable when she tries it on. Tognazzi and her collaborators don’t have a one-size-fits-all philosophy about relationships.
The film’s so short (less than 80 minutes, not counting credits) that it doesn’t take enough time for the tangents it starts to follow: We see more than we need but less than we want of Silvia and her husband, and Andrea’s possible future wife remains a blank. Luckily, Buy and Accorsi have acted together four times, and the chemistry between them quickly establishes their relation to each other. Manville, who has played weaklings for Mike Leigh for so many years, gets a pleasant change as the outspoken Brit.
Most of us never stay in hotels like these, so it’s tempting to use Arnaldo Catinari’s sumptuous cinematography as a kind of travelogue. But as we pass through the spotlessly faceless rooms, we realize elegance here depends on homogeneity: The wealthy feel comfortable because they know exactly what’s going to happen at every moment in these spaces. Perhaps you and I aren’t missing so much, after all.