After a stellar performance in Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant returns once again to romantic drama territory in Zoé Wittock‘s laudable fantasy romance, Jumbo.
In her first feature-length outing as a writer-director, Wittock tells the tale of Jeanne (Merlant) – a young woman who still lives at home with her single mother (Emmanuelle Bercot). Completely fascinated with fairground attractions and rides, Jeanne works at an amusement park and quickly becomes infatuated with the park’s newest attraction – a Tilt-A-Whirl waltzer.
Straight out of the gate, Jumbo establishes its radiant warmth and cuddly charm. It’s a tone and mood that gleefully lingers a long time after the end credits roll. The instant depiction of a wholesome relationship between mother and daughter is infectious. You can’t help but smile at how care-free and lively these two are together, as they drive to the amusement park to drop Jeanne off for work. The immediate loving chemistry between Merlant and Bercot feels 100% authentic.
Working mostly at night when the park is closed, Jeanne maintains the grounds of the amusement park, picking up litter and cleaning the various areas for the next day of business. In what seems like a mundane day-to-day (or night-to-day) shift routine, Jeanne can find the magic within the grounds of the amusement park when there’s next to or no life to it at all. With no visitors whatsoever and no attractions powered up to create any sense of excitement and atmosphere, Jeanne finds solace in the tranquillity of the park.
Having recently uncovering the park’s new flagship attraction, Jeanne one night decides to focus the attention of her work on this one ride, bemused by its magnificence. As she spit shines the Tilt-A-Whirl clean, Jeanne discovers she may feel more for this new attraction than what’s on the surface.
Naming the ride Jumbo, Jeanne quickly develops a deep and meaningful love for the inanimate mechanical giant – believing it to have its own soul and ability to communicate and reciprocate the same thoughts and feelings for Jeanne.
Jeanne’s interest and involvement with Jumbo is playful. Experiencing all of Jumbo’s mechanical prowess solely for herself is both anxiety-inducing and exhilarating as it is when one takes a ride on a roller coaster, only she reaches sexual satisfaction through this cascade of adventure.
As Jeanne and Jumbo’s relationship blossoms with each passing night, unfortunately the relationship between mother and daughter begins to break down and collapse. Confused by Jeanne’s seemingly unconventional object sexuality, Margarette (Bercot) forbids her daughter to love anything that is not human. Albeit being slightly more complex than the matter and reality of homosexuality, it is heartbreaking to see a mother confused by her own flesh and blood and their wants and desires. Margarette simply cannot understand how one can find sexual attraction or satisfaction from anything inanimate – most particularly a fairground attraction.
With each encounter Jeanne and Jumbo have, the daring love story has a backdrop of lucid, neon-lit colours and gorgeous photographic framing that captures the vibrancy and excitement of a theme park and its roller coasters. Thomas Buelens‘ Close Encounters of the Third Kind Spielbergian cinematography married with Thomas Roussel’s whimsical, intergalactic score provides for a Chris Cunningham/Björk “All Is Full of Love” coupling of science fiction absurdity and beauty.
In a brief moment of uncertainty caused by the rift between her and her mother, Jeanne experiences a genuine physical encounter with a work colleague and feels nothing at all on an emotional level. She doesn’t obtain the same gratification she does with Jumbo, proving that her love is much deeper and more meaningful than just the physical aspect of what they share.
A breakout star of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Merlot once more shines brighter than the sun in Jumbo. No stranger to a film that treats its subject matter as if it is an act of sin in the eyes of the majority, Merlot‘s vast range and emotional depth as Jeanne showcase the complexities, the misunderstood reputation and psychological insight behind the phenomenon of object sexuality.
The exploration of Jeanne and Jumbo’s forming relationship isn’t anything entirely new or challenging. However, it is still high concept and very rarely touched upon by most filmmakers. It is deeply textured, wonderfully emotive and extremely beautiful in all its objectophilic efforts. It’s a touching humanistic tale with highs and lows that takes twists and turns, simulating as if you’re apart of Jeanne’s ride experience too. Similarly to Spike Jonze‘s Her, Jumbo boldly touches on a subject matter that very few others in cinematic history have dared to, or have only scantily flirted with. The two would make a great double-bill.
As offbeat as a love story it may be to most audiences or passers-by, Wittlock has expertly created a coming-of-age drama that champions LGBTQ+ cinematic language to tell its heartwarming tale of the wonderment and thrill of love and how there is no wrong way or right or wrong thing to love. Its (not so) subtle anti-establishment underpinnings have quite an effect on you and leave their mark. The message couldn’t be any plainer, if you find love, enjoy it!
Jumbo will have you and leave you smiling ear-to-ear from beginning to end as you bask in its insouciance.
Drama, Fantasy | USA, 2020 | 15 | ARROW | Dir.Zoe Wittock | Noemie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot