Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache on Their New Comedy With Gaumont, ‘A Difficult Year,’ Where Eco-Activists and Over-Spenders Cross Paths (EXCLUSIVE)

Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the French filmmaking duo best known for their smash hit comedy “Intouchables,” are wrapping up their eighth feature, “A Difficult Year,” which Gaumont teased to buyers at the Unifrance Rendez-Vous last week. The topical comedy is bolstered by an ensemble cast including Jonathan Cohen, Pio Marmaï, Noémie Merlant and Mathieu Amalric. “A Difficult Year” reteams Toledano and Nakache with their longtime producers at Quad Films. The pair also co-produced through their banner Ten Cinema, alongside Gaumont.

Highlighting growing contradictions within our society, “A Difficult Year” follows two compulsive spenders, Albert and Bruno, who are in debt up to their necks. While seeking help from community workers to get their lives back on track, Albert and Bruno run into a group of young green activists. Lured by the free beer and snacks rather than by the ideals of these eco-activists, Albert and Bruno find themselves joining the movement without much conviction. The movie marks Toledano and Nakache’s follow up to their TV debut “En therapie,” whose first and second season reached record ratings for a scripted series on Franco-German network Arte.

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The charismatic duo discussed their new movie with Variety while on a break from editing during the Unifrance Rendez-Vous.

I heard you say this film was a ‘COVID baby.’ Why is that?

Toledano: This pandemic rocked the way we consume. It revealed who we were and how we lived. We thought we were unhappy and then when 90% of our lives was taken away from us, we thought, ‘Actually I had a good life.’ As Jacques Prevert says, you can recognize happiness by the sound it makes when it leaves. That sentence says it all.

Nakache: Then we heard people say, ‘It’s great, we breath better,’ there were no more cars, no one in the streets, and we all saw images of this little boar crossing a deserted street, wild cats, dolphins… as if nature was emerging back while humans were on lockdown. These images and new lifestyle got us thinking about this sudden awareness about our way of living.

Toledano: We felt torn between this guilt, wondering if we could live the way we did before this happened, whether that was compatible with this idea of a “new world,” and not knowing which camp we belonged to. And that’s when we figured we should make a film about this inner conflict and explain this sort of schizophrenia that our generation feels. This contrast between the fullness that characterized our consumption right before COVID hit and the emptiness that followed, when all the sudden, airports and shops were deserted.

Nakache: We were raised with commercials telling us that we need to consume and accumulate to feel happy. And COVID gave way to a new semantic: Minimalism, degrowth, sobriety and finitude.

How did that introspection become a film?

Toledano: We began doing a little investigations and got involved in two types of associations, one dealing with indebtedness, where people who are compulsive spenders learn how to consume less, and another with environmental activists. Very quickly we drew some parallels between people who don’t have much left because they’ve been seized, and minimalists who aspire to live with very little out of concern for the planet. And that’s where comedy can arise.

In our films, there’s often a mantra. In “C’est la vie,” it was: “We are adapting,” in “The Specials,” it was: “We are not far.” And in “A Difficult Year,” it’s: “Do we really need this? And do we really need it now?” These are the questions that both the recovering compulsive buyer and the ecologist ask themselves.

Is this film your big comeback to comedy?

Toledano: Yes, on a basic level, we really want to reunite with moviegoers, to make people laugh hard all together in a theater. And we couldn’t create comedy without being overwhelmed by a topic that compelled us and allowed us to tap into the absurd and the craziness that make us question who we are and what we’re doing on this planet.

But would you say it’s a film with an ecological message?

Toledano: Not really, we wanted to make an Italian comedy, that’s the model. It’s our attempt to capture in the act our times, and the paradoxes of our times. Do we continue to consume like we did before, or do we do like the younger generation buy less new clothes, which needs less objects to be happy. We know that 80% of young people today suffer from eco-anxiety.

Nakache: And as we were writing the script we also started becoming more and more aware of the urgency of the climate situation. With the heatwave, the fact that there’s not even enough snow to ski in December. It’s easy to see that something is happening. Up until now it was a sort of virtual threat, today this concern is part of our lives, we hear about it on the news, we see it through these fires, heatwaves.

Toledano: We can’t ignore this topic and I think more and more films will tackle this issue. It was the case with “Don’t Look Up” in which Adam McKay brilliantly deals with this topic through the prism of a comedy. We’ve always been interested in weaving drama and comedy, we’re always been interested in adding a layer of comedy on these types of topics.

Nakache: And at the same time we strive to make films that are cinematic; we’re not making documentaries. We’re energized from our dialogue with actors, newcomers and non-professionals on set.

So you enlisted some of these activists into the cast?

Nakache: Yes we did! We embarked a number of them with us on set to be extras or have small roles, as we often do. As per tradition we also like to bring together a cast with actors who are all very different. Jonathan Cohen, Pio Marmai, Noemie Merlant, Mathieu Amalric,  Luàna Bajrami, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet  Mathieu (Amalric) plays the advisor on indebtedness, Noemie (Merlant), the eco-anxious activist, and two cynicals, Jonathan (Cohen) and Pio (Marmai), who are between 30 and 40. They have a questionnable morality; they’re sort of losers and they’re not far from going under.

Toledano: There is some tragedy in indebtedness because any type of debt creates violence, silence, shamefulness and loneliness. These two characters are totally alone in society. They’re not far from becoming homeless. In their minds, they have nothing to lose so they’re up for all sorts of experiments, reconnecting with their feelings and their times. But ultimately they’re cynics who are looking to make money, and the comedy feeds from these situations, in the Italian tradition, as in “Big Deal on Madonna Street” and “The Monsters” – movies that enormously inspired us.

So these two anti-heroes sound different from your previous protagonists who are always wholesome.

Toledano: Yes, as we’re maturing – it’s our eighth film – we’re changing and are interested in different things. Mixing comedy and tragedy is our DNA, but we also have new perspectives, and it’s a good thing because we don’t want to be redundant.

Is there going to be a dash of romance in your film?

Of course, as in every group or association, there’s fun and romance going on. Because the essence of a collective is a world where feelings are alive and passions are shared. Pretty much all our films are about groups, starting with “Nos jours heureux,” and this one is once again exploring this bond between people but doing so from a different perspective!

Is there such a thing as the ‘world after’ for you as creators and filmmakers?

Toledano: If you’re not writing a historical movie, if you’re writing a contemporary film, you can’t avoid taking into consideration the shockwave provoked by the pandemic over almost two years. It changed our habits and we see it with the drop of moviegoing, with people leaving the big cities… Fatally, it influenced this script!

Nakache: Today you can’t write as you would before, and as a matter of fact we were writing a project before the pandemic and we ended up dropping it because it didn’t make sense anymore. And if you look in a catalogue of upcoming films in France you’ll see that it struck creators. There’re lots of projects that say something about the climate.

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