Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2014 10:23 am 
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Posh anomie

A Five Star Life, whose Italian title (Viaggio sola) means "I (feminine) travel alone," may have immediate appeal to those who fantasize a life staying at luxurious hotels, and to those who like rating where they stay. The protagonist, Irene (Margherita Buy) works as a cliente mystère or mystery guest for a hotel rating agency, and her job is to write detailed reports on the five star hotels she is sent to visit. These she reveals not on TribAdvisor or in travel books, but only to the hotel management and her boss. Her reports might presumably lead to the loss of a star; at least they keep the management on its toes. Irene begins evaluating the minute she enters the front door and we have the pleasure of observing her at work, doing white-glove checks for dust, noting the conduct of staff, testing the temperature of wine, answering an elaborate questionnaire that lists dozens of checkpoints that, when they go to voiceover, seem to interrogate her own life. Can you enjoy luxury when reporting on it is your job? Not so much. Irene, with her fashionably tousled hair and expensive shoes and to-the-manor-born manner, may seem to be living a glamorous life, but this is a tale of alienation and loneliness. Money doesn't buy happiness, and anyway Irene's job doesn't pay all that well; its selling point is just the perks.

As Irene herself notes to her boss, she's only perfect for this job because she has no life. She forty-something (actually Buy is fifty-something), has no boyfriend. Her flat, when she comes back to it, is big and empty and feels drab. The film itself feels ambivalent. It is awed by, or at least respectful of, the glamorous hostelries it depicts: the Crillon, in Paris; the Adlon Kempinski, in Berlin; the Gstaad Palace, guess where; the Namascar, in Marrakech; Fonteverde Tuscan Resort & Spa; and a couple of others. And make no mistake, this is, partly anyway, an ad for luxury hotel travel: see the film's official website if you don't believe me. On the other hand, the film never stops stressing that Irene hasn't much of a life, being always on the road. The entire film is cast in a pale semi-sepia that underlines a lack of warmth. But the hotels are still filmed to look glamorous and perfect.

Luckily Irene has one close friend at home. Andrea (Stefano Accorsi in a warm, appealing performance) is a former boyfriend who can always take time off from the organic food business he runs to be there for Irene. But when one of Andrea's one night stands leads to a pregnancy and he promises to be there for the mother, Irene fears she'll be abandoned. She also has a sister at home (Fabrizia Sacchi), whose sex life with her classical musician husband (director Tognazzi's brother Gianmarco) is on hold, and who balks at her fashion advice. Irene tries to connect with her sister's two young daughters. But, as with everything, her job tends to get in the way of that. When she takes the girls along on a hotel evaluation trip, it's hard on the younger girl. Luxury just ain't the same as human warmth, though at times it seems smothering. A man who wants to unpack and pack your bags for you, who hovers around asking if there is any way he can help? This reminds me of David Foster Wallace's story, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." The thing was a luxury cruise. And it was terrifyingly -- but hilariously -- claustrophobic. Unfortunately, Tognozzi's film has no discernible sense of humor. It's smothered by the same elegance and good taste as the hotels it features.

In any other film, Irene would have adventures. One problem is she has to lie about what she's doing at the hotel. She does once connect with a man for the evening, but they don't sleep together. Her strongest bond is with a lively feminist theorist she meets at the Adlon in Berlin (Lesley Manville of many Mike Leigh films), who shows her what an examined, engaged life is like and makes some pointed observations, but this relationship is nipped in the bud by circumstance. Most important may be Irene's observation of a honeymoon couple out of their depth whose waiter snubs them because they don't know what Eggs Benedict are. This is a black mark for the hotel. Irene's standing up for that ordinary young couple shows a touch of humanity.

Five Star Life resolves Irene's dilemmas with Andrea and her sister, and leaves Irene up in the air -- on a busman's holiday (to coin a phrase) to a deluxe hotel in Shanghai, just for herself. Maybe, with no report to make, she'll meet somebody. But will we remember Irene, or the hotels? The energy level of A Five Star Life is too low for more than two and a half stars (or three if we're in the mod to tip generously). But it offers escapist images, to be sure, and is elegantly filmed, acted, and edited and departs before it has worn out its welcome.

A Five Star Life/Io viaggio sola, 85 mins., opened 24 April 2013 in Italy and was nominated for five Donatello awards and won Buy Best Actress; released 9 July 2014 in France (so-so Allociné press rating of 3.2 and few reviews), released by Music Box in the US 18 July 2014, it comes to Landmark Theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area 8 August 2014.

Silvano Mangana, Gay Cultes

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