Sexual awakening, loneliness, and an unconventional romance collide in Zoé Wittock’s Jumbo a story so endearing you look past the idiosyncrasy.
Misfits and genre entertainment, we just fit like gloves. What is it about us weirdos that gravitate towards horror, sci-fi, and fantasy? It’s probably because that’s one of the few places it’s not just okay, but encouraged to let your freak flag fly. That unbridled wild space between what is and what could be. This crazy little film celebrates all those cast off’s who are sneered at, side-eyed, or bullied. Instead of poking fun, Jumbo takes a real look behind the curtain and finds nothing but hope.
Amusement Park Manager Marc says it early on when he first visits Jeanne. He says, “Up there, you do what you want, it’s magical.” Jumbo is like that. When you are watching its pure fantasy, it’s only after the credits roll that things get weird. Forget what you think you should feel and accept the outlandish. We can pontificate with fellow geeks about the meaning behind 2036 Origin Unknown’s ending or whether Albrun really ate her baby in Hagazussa, so why can’t we debate Jumbo’s love? It’s fantastic for a genre lover. Jumbo rests in that place somewhere between horror, fantasy, and drama, where anything is possible if you are willing to believe.
Based on the true story of Erica Eiffel, an Olympic Athlete who fell in love and married the Eiffel Tower, Jumbo presents an unlikely but ardent affair between human and nonhuman. Whether she and others like her who are afflicted with Objectophilia, the romantic attraction to inanimate objects, is possible it is real to those who find comfort in toasters, monuments, and park rides.
Jeanne played convincingly by Noémie Merlant is a young woman who has operated on the fringe of society. She is uncomfortable with pretty much everyone, including her doting but wildly inappropriate mother. She finds comfort in the intricate hand-made models in her room and the solitude of working at night in a local amusement park. When the park brings in a new attraction, Move It, nicknamed Jumbo by Jeanne, she begins a passionate affair that changes everything about who she is and how those around her view her. It is her unabashed portrayal of a young woman in the throes of a first love that sells the conceit. She flings herself into her role varying wildly between awe-struck, despondent, and eventually angry. She even manages to give a certain Lolitaesque sensuality to some of her flirtations.
A coming of age story like nothing you have ever seen, Jumbo is tender and sweet, romantic, and embarrassingly sexy. It’s the kind of movie you feel a lot of things while watching and most of those uncomfortable. That is not a knock. Some of the best films push boundaries and challenge the viewer. Anybody can make a heart-pounding action film heavy on explosions and orchestrated fears. Not everyone can take subject matter as difficult to convey and make it believable.
Director Zoé Wittock does precisely that. Her debut film is a graceful view of a woman and the machine she loves. She demands you watch without judgment. After all, that silly ride clearly loves Jeanne back. There’s nothing pornographic about Jumbo, just oddly erotic and intensely earnest. Between plenty of nudity and so much fluid, it could have gone either way. Wittock leans all the way into her central concept, neither flinching from the absurdity or denying the strangeness of the story. It’s just a lonely girl who’s found love, nothing to see here folks.
It just so happens the thing Jeanne loves is a machine she calls Jumbo. There are inherent sophomoric jokes in the naming of this poor machine, but somehow Merlant’s dedication and Wittock’s careful eye keep things from falling too far. There is one particularly poignant scene between Jeanne and her sexually open mother, Margarette, about orgasms that all but screams into the sweaty night that there is no such thing as a bad one regardless of how you achieve it. Machine driven or manmade, both leave you sticky. That’s the moral of the story. Love and happiness are rare and should be embraced, no matter how peculiar. Margarette’s gruff but loveable boyfriend Hubert(Sam Louwyck) is the first to recognize it.
Visually stunning, cinematographer Thomas Buelens splits the darkness of night with ethereal flashing lights. The contrast between the gleam of a lit bulb and the starkness of a deserted is captured beautifully. As the machine comes to life, an otherwordly glow encapsulates it allowing the viewer to see the soul so heavily implied. Set design by Valérie Valéro is gorgeous, especially of Jeanne’s room. Meticulously crafted and layered, Jeanne’s room is singularly unique. It provides solace and safety for the awkward girl.
As good a performance as Noémie Merlant(Jeanne) gives, Emmanuelle Bercot(Margarette) matches her. She resonates with the kind of all-consuming love, frustration, remorse, and disappointment parenthood can bring. Being a parent, especially a single parent of an autistic child has to be one of the hardest jobs. Margarette’s husband, Jeanne’s father left them sometime after Jeanne was born. Margarette implies it was because she didn’t want to be a father to anyone, much less someone not “normal”. She stops this side of blaming Jeanne for his leaving but even Jeanne who doesn’t catch a lot of nuances would not miss the inference.
Ever since Jeanne’s father left, Margarette has been looking for validation and moments of happiness wherever she can get it. Desperate to hold on to her youth, her sexuality defines her. Having to act as a straight man to Jeanne is difficult. Merlant’s gravitational pull is immense. Bercot not just holds her own but manages to steal quite a few scenes. She allows Margarette to be flawed by understandable as she changes just as profoundly as Jeanne.
Moving and strange, the comparison between mother and daughter is the real triumph of the film. Jeanne is happy. Sure, she’s found love in an unexpected and frankly taboo place, but still, she’s happy. As Margarette’s boyfriend Hubert points out, who cares that it’s different. She’s not hurting anyone and is happy. The more tragic character is Margarette. Jeanne’s father’s rejection irreparably damaged her. She is so concerned with how others view her, and Jeanne, she can’t just be content. After everything she has said and done to Jeanne when Hubert leaves, she turns to her for comfort. It should be the other way around, and even Jeanne knows it. In Jumbo’s final act, Margarette comes to terms with what matters in life and the love she feels for her daughter.
Are things slightly clunky on occasion? Knob polishing(with saliva no less) is a little too on the nose, and the ending is a little too trite, but as a whole, Jumbo made me feel something. Much like the massive namesake, Wittock’s vision is a lot to contain. Most of it stays where it should, but now and again, something squirts out, and it isn’t always pretty. Regardless of, ahem…..secretions, Jumbo won’t rust, who knows if the film will hold up as well in this new world of private movie watching. I suspect, at the very least, it will be polarizing. Some viewers crying, others laughing, and still others with nasty cases of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Maybe this film spoke to me because I can relate to having an atypical child and the struggles it brings. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though. I think this movie can speak to any who’s ever felt misunderstood and unloved—searching everywhere for someone who will accept you, quirks and all. Sometimes you find love in the most unexpected of places and with the state of the world right now, shouldn’t that be a good thing? Number 5 is alive, why can’t Jumbo be too? All are welcome on the carousel of love; some just get a better ride than others.
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As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.