Irene is keen at finding flaws and reluctant to commit to permanence. In that sense, her job couldn’t be more ideal: secret hotel inspector. She travels to first-class resorts around the world, sampling the food, checking the dust on the mantels, rating the efficiency of the staff. Already deep into a stylish middle age, Irene is aware that her status is unusual and perhaps unsustainable. She knows this not so much because she feels great angst about it—by the looks of things, she doesn’t—but because other people keep implying that her nomadic life must be unfulfilling in some essential way.
Irene, played by Margherita Buy, is the protagonist of A Five Star Life, directed and co-written by Maria Sole Tognazzi. (The Italian title is Viaggio Sole, so something like Solo Traveler would’ve been a better English title.) With this setup, you can see the movie’s conventional arc shape up: a midlife crisis; epiphanies involving children and a new man; and a last-act expression of growing and learning. But Tognazzi and Buy aren’t having it. In Buy’s splendidly neutral performance, Irene does do some soul-searching, but she will not fit into the arthouse formula; Tognazzi invents situations that seem to promise a cozy solution, and then casually sidesteps them. Irene’s sister (Fabrizia Sacchi), for instance, is married with kids, but if this example brings Irene a pang about not being a mother, she doesn’t sweat it too much. Irene’s ex-beau (Stefano Accorsi), still a friend and currently going through his own midlife uncertainty, seems a possible option for Irene, or then again maybe not. Even a pleasantly flirtatious encounter with a stranger at a Marrakesh hotel ends without melodrama—or even drama.
In short, Tognazzi is doing something subtly heroic here. She delivers the requisite eye candy, but denies us the tidy resolution. Instead she seems to ask: Who are we to decide that Irene needs to “grow” and “learn”? Irene may well be lonely at times, but so is everybody else at times. Is it just possible that she doesn’t need to have children or take a husband in order to be all right? Every ounce of our movie-watching history tells us resolution needs to happen—but why? A great scene at the very end of Five Star Life flirts with the possibility it’ll fall into the very cliché Tognazzi has been avoiding all along, but not to worry: This movie is smarter than that. Opens Fri., Aug. 29 at Seven Gables. Not rated. 85 minutes.