The life of a luxury-hotel inspector sounds glamorous. You get to travel all over the world, staying in the best hotels in Paris, Berlin, Marrakesh, Gstaad and other exotic locales. Even if you’re a “mystery guest” — like the undercover protagonist of “A Five Star Life,” an itinerant snoop whose identity is unknown to hotel staff — chances are that lousy service in a five-star hotel is still pretty luxurious.
But what sounds good on paper looks pretty dreary on film. What takes hotel inspector Irene Lorenzi (Margherita Buy) most of the movie to figure out — that life on the road, though paved with gold, can prove tedious — becomes clear to viewers within the first few minutes.
Sumptuousness can be sterile. And the emotional hangover that follows the high of a stay in paradise can be a crushing letdown. That’s apparent, at least, from the looks of Irene’s home life, which is rendered, in cinematic shorthand, as a meal of hastily boiled frozen veggies, alone, in a nearly empty apartment.
Single and childless, Irene is ideal for this job, which requires travel 90 percent of the year. Though much of the Italian film (directed and co-written by Maria Sole Tognazzi) delves into the minutiae of hotel ratings — a system determined by the temperature of room-service wine and the number of seconds before a waiter approaches your table — the film’s true subject is Irene’s lack of fulfillment as a human being. It’s clear from her friendly but chaste relationship with an ex-boyfriend (Stefano Accorsi) and the contrast between Irene’s shallow existence and the messy but love-rich life of her married sister (Fabrizia Sacchi) that something is missing.
Irene doesn’t discover this until she runs into Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville), a saucy Englishwoman who is staying at the same German hotel for a conference. Kate, an anthropologist whose area of expertise is sex and intimacy, acts as a metaphorical wake-up call for Irene, who’s had several of the more literal variety throughout the film without ever managing to fully rouse herself from her luxury-induced stupor. An interlude in Morocco, during which Irene engages in a flirtation with a charming but married Frenchman (Bruno Wolkowitch), isn’t even enough to make her realize how lonely she is.
But when our heroine meets Kate, an hour into the film, something shakes loose. “Oh good,” Kate says, after Irene tells her that she’s a sort of spy, “things are starting to get interesting.” The pulse of the film picks up, as do the stakes. The film’s last half-hour takes some wonderful little detours and is filled with surprises both sad and delightful.
It’s a shame, however, that the movie takes so long to get there. The final destination of “A Five Star Life” is well worth the wait, but the service is so slow that some viewers may check out early.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At the Avalon and the West End Cinema. Contains some vulgarity and sexual dialogue. In Italian, French, English and German with subtitles. 85 minutes.