This French social satire sees two lost souls find some purpose in an environmental action group 

A Difficult Year

Source: Toronto International Film Festival

‘A Difficult Year’

Dirs: Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. France. 2023. 120mins 

In A Difficult Year, the debt-burdened Albert (Pio Marmaï) searches for a lifeline. And finds help in an unlikely place: an environmental rights group led by the cheerful zealot codenamed Cactus (Noémie Merlant). When the offer of free alcohol and food attracts Albert and his equally as money hungry friend Bruno (Jonathan Cohen) to a group meeting, sparks fly between Albert and Cactus. Yet although this handsomely mounted screwball comedy features entertaining escapades, French co-directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s film lacks romantic chemistry, emotional verve and political vigor.    

Marmaï and Cohen are wonderful, engaging, bumbling idiots

A Difficult Year is composed of two romances. There is, of course, the heterosexual pairing of Albert and Cactus. But the stronger combination is actually the platonic love shared by Albert and Bruno. Both men are not only destitute, they owe money to family, co-workers, and friends. Albert’s financial troubles restrict him to sleeping where he works; at an airport. There he scrounges the contraband items (expensive perfumes, swiss army knives, ect) taken from passengers and sells them to other travelers. Bruno, abandoned by his wife and child, has suicidal ideations that Albert tries to help with. Both men attend financial guidance sessions led by Henri (an underused Mathieu Amalric) as they cook up get-rich schemes that are bound to fail.

Usually, chemistry is solely reserved for romantic couplings, but it should also apply to friendships. Marmaï and Cohen are wonderful, engaging, bumbling idiots, whose foolishness feeds the film’s most memorable scenes. Take the sequence where Albert and Bruno attempt to infiltrate the Bank of France by duping Cactus’ group to stage a protest there. The two men disguise themselves as financial auditors, slip away from the demonstration to an office where they edit their personal financial files by using white out—a trick that spectacularly fails. Albert and Bruno spend meetings ridiculing the earnest environmental protesters but, before long, they grow spirited toward the organization’s direct action aims. A dynamic montage—featuring a string of protests conducted by the group—both satirizes Cactus’ Act Up tactics while depicting Bruno and Albert as buffoons. 

A glaring problem persists throughout the film, however; it is difficult to tell if these men respect people like Cactus or their environmental cause. It makes the attraction Cactus feels toward Albert strained. We wonder what about him is appealing to her? Albert’s minimal charm does not strengthen the few furtive stares and an aborted date the couple share. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Merlant’s glances sparked an erotic romance. Marmaï doesn’t bring enough power to elicit those same desires here.

Most concerning is the film’s personal hollowness. Every scene is brightly lit, but no intimate truths are revealed. Though Cactus eventually learns of Albert unscrupulously selling furniture donated to the group on the black market, that news does not lead to some cathartic clarity on Albert’s part. Meanwhile, the score is jaunty, often soundtracked by needle drops like ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘This the End’, yet these notes, pushed for a forced fervent effect, zap the scenes of their intended anarchist mood. 

The film opens with a montage of past French Prime Ministers sharing the same refrain: “It’s been a difficult year.” Yet, frustratingly, the filmmakers do not build on this promise. It instead opts for wish fulfillment through a climactic romantic dream sequence akin to The Worst Person in the World, depicting Bruno and Cactus walking through a frozen city devoid of foot traffic, cars, and pollution. But whose fantasy, born from the pandemic reality, is this? Why is it more important for Cactus to be in a relationship over her environmental work? A Difficult Year fumbles the simple screwball route and gives viewers nothing in return. 

Production companies: Latarka Studio, Zebra Visual

International sales: Gaumont

Producer: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky

Screenplay: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano

Cinematography: Mélodie Préel

Production design: Mila Préli

Editing: Dorian Rigal-Ansous

Music: Grandbrothers, Gogo Penguin

Main cast: Pio Marmaï, Jonathan Cohen, Noémie Merlant, Mathieu Amalric