Film Review: A Five Star Life

With a lot of travelogue-type footage and some introspection, director Maria Sole Tognazzi&#8217;s <i>A Five Star Life</i> finds a new angle to the women&#8217;s issues we thought we already settled, or at least had enough of for now.

In A Five Star Life, Margherita Buy is quite engaging as Irene, a most attractive 40-ish woman with an enviable career she really grooves on. Irene is an inspector of top-of-the-line hotels such as Paris’ Hotel de Crillon, with a travel agenda to the luxury spots of Switzerland, Berlin, Morocco. On the home front, she has a cozy relationship with a former boyfriend, warmly and credibly played by Stefano Accorsi, and a married sister (Fabrizia Sacchi) with two cute but never cutesy kids who seem genuinely fond of Irene. And she really sparkles with her nieces.
But suddenly a number of what shall remain undisclosed plot points shake up Irene’s world. Though there are hints of trouble early on. We see her with her boss, who is piling more work on her. “I’m your ideal inspector,” she says, “I don’t have a life.”

What she does have is an eye for imperfection, spotting errors in the hotels she visits as a mystery guest: peeking under the bed to spot the odd shoe left behind, checking if the greeting desk clerk doesn’t make eye contact, or if the waiter doesn’t offer a taste of the wine before pouring. Cleverly, this is accompanied by a voiceover of items to be ticked off. More ironically and pointedly, the checklist is used later for comment and contrast with Irene’s own life: comfort, warmth of greeting, and so on.

Like a number of other female filmmakers—Lynn Shelton with Your Sister’s Sister comes to mind—Tognazzi uses sisters to place a magnifying glass on female issues. Their very different life paths crisscross, but also cross up at times. And as sisters, competition, carping and loving support can co-exist. We also get a peek at the long-term marriage of Silvia, the mother of those twinkly girls. A professional musician, her husband makes less money than the plumber, she gently points out; their love life has dried up, though both spouses manage to laugh about it. Silvia plaintively asks if this is a temporary thing, or if there will be no turning back; long-marrieds in the audience may resonate with this.

On one of Irene’s trips she runs into Kate, a guru of sorts played by a witty Leslie Manville (perhaps familiar from Mike Leigh movies) in a quicksilver turn. The two strike up a conversation while seated on the edge of a hotel spa whirlpool. And in one of the film’s many surprises, we are momentarily hoodwinked into kinky erotic expectations as Kate gets dressed in provocative leather garb, and soon espouses her life philosophy of autonomy. Their encounter also sparks a kaboom moment for Irene’s worries about her life direction.

It’s all part of Irene’s inner and outer journey exploring what it is to be a woman alone, at her age. But the delighted subtext, and look, of the movie, may remind inveterate plane-hoppers of the comment by travel writer Freya Stark—“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” The camerawork by Arnaldo Catinari sets and keeps the mood. With sensuous lingering on the trappings of luxe hotels, the pools, robes, plus the carefully framed views of country or city, it’s very Italian in sensibility. Perhaps as important as director Tognazzi’s contribution, A Five Star Life was co-written by popular Italian novelist Francesca Marciano, who works with travel themes.

With its acceptance of life as it is, and its delight in same—even if we may be watching a cautionary tale—A Five Star Life has that typically Italian shrug of the shoulders. It eschews the puritanism and self-flagellation of many feminist inquiries in American movies. As such, it’s a nice dollop of spumoni to plop onto the offerings of working women auteurs and female portraits we’ve been treated to in the past few years.

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