Films like Lars and the Real Girl and Her have familiarized audiences with the “man falls in love with inanimate object” storyline (using a mannequin and an AI voiced by Scarlett Johansson, respectively). But Jumbo, Zoe Wittock’s directorial debut, refreshingly adds a woman—an amusement park worker who develops a romantic and erotic relationship with Jumbo, the newest ride at the park—to the mix. Wittock’s writing and direction effectively communicate how metaphorically appropriate the proverbial amusement park is when exploring the thrill, the valleys and peaks, the whirlwind of desire. While the audacity of Jumbo’s premise is certainly a draw, it also forces audiences to recalibrate their perception of what a romance looks like in a way that is effectively disorienting—but disorienting nonetheless. The film nestles itself between shock and earned awe.
Before the romance in Jumbo reaches its apex, the audience is first introduced to Jeanne (Noémie Merlant), a pensive young woman with Joan of Arc bangs and an affinity for amusement park rides. Wittock strikes an excellent balance between characterizing Jeanne, familiarizing the audience with her individuality and using her complexity to ground the attraction that she ultimately cultivates to Jumbo. Throughout the film, Jeanne crafts small-scale, scrap metal replicas of the rides at the park. She also lives with her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), a volcanic, playful figure who calls Jeanne “sugarpuss” and loves her, but cannot always see her. Together they talk about life and romance, listening to the ‘80s American rock that’s synths and heavy guitar define the soundscape of the film.
Jeanne spends her time at work curbing the quasi-creepy advances of her boss, Marc (Bastien Bouillon), and basking in the wonder of the rides. While at work, Jeanne is often bathed in the green glow of carnival lights and a bevy of alternating blues and reds—all of which conjure a familiar amusement park atmosphere. She literally lights up when in the presence of rides. On the surface, Jeanne moves through the world with this curiosity and kindness towards the people who love her. But there’s a level of restraint as well, a repression bubbling beneath the surface that waits to burst through. There’s a tinge of inexperience that colors her character, not quite a naivete but a newness and an unfamiliarity with physical and emotional nakedness. The pressure that builds within Jeanne is mirrored in the environment around her as she and her mother drive past roaring waterfalls or when Jeanne witnesses the borderline orgasmic squeals of carousel riders.
When Jeanne nearly falls off of Jumbo during an evening maintenance check, Jumbo levels himself to the ground ensuring Jeanne’s safety. From there, a courtship begins. Jumbo communicates to Jeanne through the colors of his iridescent light bulbs. His emotions are further displayed through the pooling of oily lubricant, which can sputter like tears or drip like precum.
Jeanne and Jumbo’s unconventional relationship undoubtedly demands an adjustment period. It’s not every day that we see a romance develop between a human woman and a pendulum ride. But this adjustment period mostly services the central conflict that arises: Margarette’s aggressive disapproval of Jeanne’s romance with Jumbo. Through Margarette’s balking, the audience is given the secondhand responsibility of assessing their own apprehensions to Jeanne’s romantic reality.
In addition to Wittock using Jumbo’s spectacle to reiterate its central narrative conflict, she leverages the contrast between Jumbo and Jeanne to reinforce Jeanne’s inner dualities. Jumbo is a cold, metal, machine while Jeanne is a warm, blood-filled human. In parallel, Jeanne contains reserved, understated, almost machine-like expressions of emotion while also possessing a massive capacity for passion and anger. In her relationship with Jumbo, Jeanne surrenders to desire. She’s just a woman standing front of a roller coaster and asking him to have sex with her, after all. But Jeanne’s union with Jumbo also facilitates this return to and celebration of herself—partially because she embraces her yearnings to be intimate with Jumbo, but also because accepting his quiet and his distinct forms of expression is like accepting those corresponding parts of herself.
Jumbo is at its strongest during its fantasy sequences, in which naked Jeanne moans in puddles of black oil. The film also works well when conceptualized as a light metaphor for queer romance. The film thankfully does not equivocate queer people with sentient machines and thereby inadvertently dehumanize them, but rather appreciates the inherent legitimacy of Jeanne’s romantic affinity and understands the obtuse ways her mother dismisses it. Merlant and Bercot give compelling performances that pull the story out of the gimmicky crawlspace it could have easily collapsed into were the roles placed in the hands of less-equipped actors. Merlant’s writhing, fainting spells and intense gaze do well to communicate the intensity of desire and, although the film can sometimes be a dizzying attraction to climb on, Jumbo is certainly worth the ride.
Director: Zoe Wittock
Writer: Zoe Wittock
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Sam Louwyck
Release Date: March 16 (VOD)
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.