One of the first things Irene does in a new hotel room is put on a pair of white rubber gloves.
She then checks every surface of the room for dust – even the tops of picture frames. Before she unpacks and puts her clothes away, she runs an appraising gloved finger inside every one of the room’s empty drawers.
She pushes her nose into every towel, sheet and bedspread and takes in a deep whiff. She makes sure to look under the bed. Woe betide the hotel that has somehow left a previous guest’s soiled room service napkin under there.
When she orders room service, she times the food’s arrival with a stop watch she always has with her.
Such is the professionalism of “A Five Star Life” according to the movie by Maria Sole Tognazzi, the daughter of the late and wonderful Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi (“La Cage aux Folles,” “La Grande Bouffe,” “Fellini’s Satyricon,” “Barbarella”).
Irene is the secret “Mystery Guest” at luxurious five-star hotels throughout Europe and the Middle East. If the great hotels of the world expect to retain their five-star ratings, they had better hope that Irene’s experience in the place is up to her exacting and constantly articulated standards.
But that is only one stratum of her life, as this movie has it – the one that is easy for audiences to luxuriate in and be dazzled by as you gape and look, dumbfounded, at the plush lives inside the sort of hotels few travelers are familiar with. Even for those of us who have become quite familiar with hotel life over the years, these are not the establishments we know much about. These are not the places where we lead our lives, however peripatetic they may or may not be.
So the film leaps from Paris to Gstaad to Marrakech to Berlin and other parts of the map. It is wittily separated into geographical parts announced by the temperature in Fahrenheit – 88 degrees in Marrakech, for instance, followed by 66 degrees in Berlin.
Irene’s ultra-scrutinous professional life is the point that is counterpointed by her all-too-mundane and sometimes ordinary personal life when she isn’t working. It is there that she loves her sister and her pre-teen nieces, but is capable of losing her temper with them all.
It is there she has an ex named Andrea (Steffano Accorsi) who is still in her life as her best friend, but is about to have a baby with another woman.
Her professional life is all ritual and surface; the rest of her life continues to surprise her whenever it plunges beneath the middle-class surface.
The Italian title of the film is better than “A Five Star Life” – “Viaggio Sola” or “Traveling Alone,” the way all lives are lived, essentially, but especially Irene’s, with neither romance or partnership or children to divert her attention from travel and work (which are, for her, the same thing).
Even when she comes momentarily close, in Marrakech, to a sexual flirtation in an impossibly gorgeous and plush hotel, her would-be partner tells her sadly, as they get to the door of her room that he is “very married and very faithful.”
And then, for Irene, everything changes in an instant – all because of an English anthropologist she meets in Berlin.
Her fellow hotel guest is in town flogging a book of feminist reflections on our world’s “hyper-sexualized culture.”
“Luxury is a form of deceit,” she tells Irene at one point. Irene’s life is predicated on just that deceit.
And then, out of that sliver of contact, Irene suddenly discovers new depths primarily unimagined in her life of examining surfaces and rituals.
“A Five Star Life” is a very likable slice of very minor narrative – the film equivalent of a short story rather than a novel. It’s dependent on small details, observations and turns of plot, into which any major development at all echoes with unavoidable drama.
Margherita Buy, the beautiful actress who was 51 when she played Irene, won awards at film festivals for the role and you can understand why. Her performance is exquisitely modulated – and exquisitely directed by an actor’s daughter who, apparently, paid a lot of attention to whatever “Papa” might have shared about his profession.
Its essential appeal, as used to be the case so often with foreign films, is that it is an 85-minute feast of wealth and luxury available to others across oceans or water, culture and money.
It’s a small, subtle film about life “Viaggio Sola.” It has some resonance when the film is over.
But, in cold truth, not much.
A FIVE STAR LIFE
Starring: Margherita Buy, Stefano Accorsi, Diletta Gradia, Lesley Manville
Director: Maria Sole Tognazzi
Running time: 85 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 equivalent for language and mature subject matter.
The Lowdown: An anonymous “mystery guest” secretly rates the world’s most luxurious hotels while even more secretly leading a very ordinary life. In Italian and other languages with subtitles.