A difficult year

A difficult year
Original title:Une année difficile
Director:Éric Toledano, Olivier Nakache
Running time:103 minutes
Release date:Not communicated
Albert et Bruno sont surendettés et en bout de course, c’est dans le chemin associatif qu’ils empruntent ensemble qu’ils croisent des jeunes militants écolos. Plus attirés par la bière et les chips gratuites que par leurs arguments, ils vont peu à peu intégrer le mouvement sans conviction…

Mulder's Review

In a tumultuous year of personal debts and financial problems, Albert (played to perfection by Pio Marmaï) is in desperate need of a lifeline. Unexpectedly, he stumbles upon a glimmer of hope from an unlikely source - an environmental group led by the feisty activist known as Cactus (played by the lovely Noémie Merlant). Lured by the lure of free food and booze, Albert and his equally money-motivated friend Bruno (Jonathan Cohen, perfect again) attend a meeting of the group, and sparks fly between Albert and Cactus. A Difficult Year offers a visually captivating and entertaining comedy experience. Co-directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano's film brilliantly manages to establish romantic chemistry, emotional depth and political resonance.

The film unfolds through two intertwined romances. On the one hand, we witness the budding relationship between Albert and Cactus. On the other, the emotional heart of the film lies in the platonic bond shared by Albert and Bruno, both struggling with financial despair and debts to family, colleagues and friends. Albert's dire financial situation forces him to sleep at the airport, where he collects contraband left by passengers and sells it to other travelers. Bruno, abandoned by his family, even contemplates suicide, and Albert tries to be his lifeline. The two men attend financial counseling sessions led by Henri (played by Mathieu Amalric), while concocting get-rich-quick schemes that seem doomed to failure.

In the movies, chemistry is usually reserved for romantic couples, but it's just as important in depicting friendships. Pio Marmaï and Jonathan Cohen deliver outstanding performances, playing endearing but bumbling characters whose idiocy is responsible for some of the film's most memorable moments. For example, the scene in which Albert and Bruno attempt to infiltrate the Banque de France by tricking the Cactus group into staging a protest is both hilarious and endearing. The pair disguise themselves as financial auditors, escape from the demonstration and comically alter their own financial records with white-out, an enterprise that predictably goes awry. While Albert and Bruno initially ridicule sincere environmental activists, they gradually become fervent supporters of the group's direct action goals. A dynamic montage presents a series of demonstrations led by the group, satirizing Cactus activism while presenting Bruno and Albert as comic buffoons.

The film Une année difficile opens with a montage of former French prime ministers all repeating the refrain L'année a été difficile. Unfortunately, the film doesn't exploit this thematic promise. Instead, it simply grants wishes through a romantic dream sequence, not unlike The Worst Person in the World, in which Bruno and Cactus navigate a frozen city, devoid of people, cars or pollution. However, the origin of this fantasy, born of pandemic reality, remains unclear.  The first act effectively establishes the characters, including Bruno's intriguing business of collecting and reselling discarded airport liquids. Although the middle section of the film is filled with interesting episodes, such as an amusing montage of activists wreaking havoc at public events, Une année difficile stumbles over its excessive length (120 minutes). The film also raises questions about the priority given to a romantic relationship over environmental activism. 

However, a screenplay problem is apparent throughout the film. It's not sufficiently clear whether Albert and Bruno really respect figures like Cactus or his environmental cause, which makes the attraction between Cactus and Albert tense. Viewers may wonder what exactly Cactus likes about him, as Albert's limited charm fails to create the desired chemistry through their few meaningful glances and one botched date. Conversely, films like Portrait of a Woman on Fire conveyed powerful romantic longings through simple glances, a quality Marmaï's performance lacks here. While every scene is bathed in bright light, the film fails to reveal intimate truths about its characters. Even when Cactus discovers that Albert has been selling unethically donated furniture on the black market, this revelation doesn't lead to a cathartic moment of self-awareness for Albert. 

Set against the backdrop of modern issues such as over-consumption, debt, the climate crisis and ecological activism, A Difficult Year tackles these themes with the dynamic, humanistic style characteristic of directors Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. The story revolves around a small group of ecological activists led by the passionate Valentine (Noémie Merlant), who engage in shock operations that attract attention. Meanwhile, Albert and Bruno, struggling with their own financial difficulties, are more concerned with making ends meet and surviving. When these two worlds meet, Albert and Bruno see the opportunity to do some profitable business. However, they soon find themselves embroiled in daring acts that challenge their values.

The film gets rid of superfluous elements to focus on its main message, at a steady pace and with a captivating soundtrack. Following the comic duo of Pio Marmaï and Jonathan Cohen, the filmmakers deftly blend humor and empathy to convey their political message, which blends emotions with environmental concerns. A Difficult Year tends to be a cinematic mission to raise awareness through laughter, tackling a global system often seen as deadly. It attempts to bridge the gap between environmental advocates and ordinary people struggling with the cost of living and consumer credit. Without hiding the endearing human flaws of their characters, Toledano and Nakache highlight the virtues of solidarity, communication, commitment, effort and goodwill in an entertaining, controlled style. The result is a film that is in tune with the times, that rings true and that will move you and play with your feelings. This is naturally one of our favorite films of the fall season.

A Difficult Year
Written and directed by Éric Toledano, Olivier Nakache
Produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky
Starring Pio Marmaï, Jonathan Cohen, Mathieu Amalric, Luàna Bajrami, James Gaspar De Almeida, Jean-Louis Garçon, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Noémie Merlant, Héléna Mogelan, Marie Papillon, Sophie Parel, Julie Tessier, Gaïa Warnant.
Music : 
Cinematography : Mélodie Preel
Edited by Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Production companies : Quad, Ten Cinéma, TF1 Films
Distributed by Gaumont Film Company
Release date : May 18, 2023 (Cannes), October 18, 2023 (France)
Running time : 103 minutes

Seen September 12, 2023 at Gaumont Disney Village, Room 3 place A19
Seen September 18, 2023 at Forum des images, room 300 (Club Allociné)

Mulder's Mark: