What would you do if you were alone in a foreign, unfamiliar city? For some, who feed off of a social experience, this sounds like a frightening proposition. For others who enjoy quiet time alone and revel in solitude it is quite the opposite. Throughout our lives we maintain a balance of the two extremes, a constant cycle of the communal and the solitary. But for Irene (Margherita Buy) — the nomadic travel warrior of Maria Sole Tognazzi’s new film A Five Star Life (originally titled I Travel Alone) — her life rests firmly in the camp de solitude. As an inspector of luxury hotels, she travels from country to country, hotel to hotel, completely alone, the work-issued laptop and inspection checklist her most reliable companions as she rates, judges and comments on every surface, meal and human interaction in a way that makes hotshot television CSI teams look like a club of bumbling amateurs.
A lifestyle of travel and obsessive attention to minute flaws has its consequences, especially in the long-term relationship department. Irene’s ex and best friend Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) and her sister’s children fill the void of companionship and family respectively during the few days she spends in between assignments at the spartan apartment she calls home. The film explores her fleeting interactions with these people and for small stretches of time Tognazzi turns the narrative over to them. Irene’s sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) struggles to raise a family and maintain intimacy with her husband in one narrative. In another, we find Andrea — a man usually accustomed to living life without commitments — slowly coming to terms with the fact he is about to become a father. Irene floats in and out of these vignettes, each serving to highlight a different take on the idea not so subtly foreshadowed by the original title of the film.
The entire communal-solitary spectrum is represented here. The lack of intimacy Silvia feels when her musician husband seems to be more interested in video games than sex is juxtaposed with the adjustments Andrea must make when moving from one-night stands to potential father figure. Irene is always showcased as the loner — even an exotic desert hotel evening filled with excessive eye flirtation and wine ends in solitude when the man admits he is married. It isn’t until she has a chance encounter with Kate (Lesley Manville), a writer and feminist with an independent streak, that Irene begins to rethink her life of solitude.
The high-end locales and barely skin-deep drama make the film feel at times like a flashy Lifetime movie import mashed together with a high-end hotel chain commercial, but to Tognazzi’s credit the film never takes itself too seriously. After all, these are beautiful people living their daily lives in pulchritudinous locales and the director knows it is an uphill battle for viewers to connect emotionally with these characters. But just when we think we have everything figured out and await the familiar but stale conclusion that permeates movies and television shows that follow similar cinematic paths as A Five Star Life, the director gives the viewers a little wink. The issues so lightly touched on throughout the film — decisions facing career women, social pressure to have a family, the disruptive force of technology in our lives — are all chucked out the window by an important decision Irene makes in the closing scenes of the film. She may be a mystery guest to the hotels she so vehemently scrutinizes, but there is no mystery to the unexpected path she chooses at the end of the film. Without giving too much away, this key moment makes for a more satisfying conclusion than one would expect and literally makes the movie work. As they say, it’s how you finish.