‘A Five-Star Life’ – an unfinished look at the high life and its emptiness

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The Italian film “A Five Star Life” isn’t likely to garner a lot of five-star reviews.

It’s too singular. Too…unfinished.

It’s also the sort of movie Hollywood seldom, if ever, makes: one about an attractive woman in her mid-40s. (Aside: one could almost see Lauren Bacall in the role 50 years ago, but she would’ve also had to throw a coin in a fountain and wish for true love; plus, she’d be de facto i.d.’d not as an attractive woman but an attractive spinster).

Not so here. Elegant and sophisticated, Irene (Margherita Buy) makes her living visiting…well…elegant and sophisticated hotels all over the world. Paris this week, Gstaad the next.

She is a professional guest — a “mystery guest” in the lingo of those she judges. A single bad mark from her and even the ritziest place could lose that coveted five-star rating.

Thus, everything in her expensive suite gets the white-glove once-over. A bellboy’s attentiveness and efficiency are subjected to razor-sharp scrutiny. How long it takes a waiter to take her order is discreetly measured by a stopwatch.

Irene is paid to sweat the small stuff — at some very stuffy establishments. Yet, mostly because she’s a woman on her own, the staff rarely guesses her identity.

That she is a woman is what interests filmmaker Maria Sole Tognazzi.  Irene’s boss tells her he’ll need her services more because another employee (that is, another female employee) has had to cut back her hours. Acknowledging that travel can be a different experience for a woman on her own (versus a man) is a fascinating — and somewhat disturbing — touch, as is a throwaway shot of the hotel staff bending over backwards for a chubby, cigar-puffing male guest they assume must be the “mystery guest.”

We are meant to be tempted as well as put off by her glamorous existence. There’s no one waiting at home except for a sister with an obstreperous family and a former boyfriend-turned-best-friend. That her sterile apartment looks eerily like George Clooney’s in “Up in the Air” is both a clue and a red herring.

Is Irene blessed with a privileged freedom or is she just another lonely person buffered by glamorous circumstances?

“The Five Star Life” is a small film (80 minutes) that glances at big issues. In doing so — not entirely successfully — the film feels truncated. Again, somehow incomplete.

But there’s originality here, plus several fine performances (especially Buy). And the places she visits are to die for. An armchair traveler could do a lot worse.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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