Jumbo is a curious exploration that delves inside the world of falling in love with an inanimate object and while this might sound peculiar, or even somewhat insipid as a subject matter, it’s definitely not the latter and it’s also welcomingly weird.
This directorial debut from Belgian Writer/Director Zoé Wittock stars Noémie Merlant as Jeanne, an introverted young woman who still lives at home, and takes a late-night cleaning job at her local fairground, where she’s been visiting all her life. Jeanne isn’t really your happy-go-lucky type (who is really) but also never cruel or dislikeable. Sure, she’s a little nervous but comfortable in her own small world, which also involves building miniature theme park rides in her room, complete with lights and all the detail.
While Jeanne has trouble connecting with other people, her job gives her the opportunity to find deep admiration and intrigue with the inanimate objects in the darkness of a deserted fairground and, explicitly, a new ride she nicknames ‘Jumbo’, because of its size and prowess. It’s one of those theme park rides that spins you up in the air, and while she’s fascinated by its presence, it’s not long before she begins falling for its bright lights, smooth surfaces and inviting movement.
Reportedly inspired by the Olympian Erika LaBrie, who fell in love and married the Eiffel Tower, Wittock’s film generally follows a serious tone, focusing on Jeanne’s personal struggle with intimacy and her internal desire to be with something she loves. The counterweight to her introvert is her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), who is the opposite, a barmaid at the local pub and always trying to force her daughter to talk about sex, who’s also open about the men she sleeps with, and what she loves about it. Jeanne’s Father isn’t on the scene, and the remaining men in Jumboare mainly inconsiderate and examples of male harassment and power games, so it’s effortless to side and empathise with Jeanne’s situation, rather than her mother. You can appreciate why she’s falling in love with a machine because in this circumstance, it’s one of the few things with class and restraint.
One of the key things that made Jumbo particularly alluring was the cinematography from Thomas Buelens, and particularly in the solo scenes between Jeanne and Jumbo, which counteract the darker day-to-day. These beautiful, exquisite visual moments fill the screen and while you’re aware this is a bizarre tale, the use of fairground ride lights as visual representation of ‘actual’ conservation is inspired. There are also escapism scenes for Jeanne through light and sound, where she discovers a sexual thrill with the ride, but it’s not gratuitous and remains personal to the character, even though you can sense the pleasure. For some reason, it sparked into my head as an 18-rated Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its passion, especially in those crescendo moments of Spielberg’s classic. I also liked a similar moment with oil and orgasm, which visually isn’t too far from the unforgettable other world in Under the Skin, but here it’s all about Jeanne, rather than death.
While Jumbo doesn’t exactly delve into mental health, and it could, I’m not sure it matters. Her central story is of her finding love, and a personal awakening to sexual self-exploration, something we can all connect with in an adult sense. I feel we miss a little backstory though, as we don’t know much about her past at all, or why she has this longing, in a psychological sense. On the surface, an object will rarely leave you, as people seem to in her life, but whether this is trauma is unknown. The one thing that’s clear is that most of the men in her life aren’t really that nice, and who says who, or what, we fall for anyway? And, in truth, what’s the difference in any of us using mechanical means to aid our pleasure, in every form.
While the ending of Jumbo is a slight departure compared to what’s come before and doesn’t quite feel right in the context of where we’ve been, it’s a somewhat cathartic win for the excellent two lead women, and that’s never a bad thing. Utterly unusual, and beautifully shot, it’s the sincere, persuasive lead performance from Noémie Merlant that keeps you engaged right to the end.