Writer and Director: Zoé Wittock
Falling in love with inappropriate things is a sci-fi and fantasy staple, and as the leads find themselves attracted to water monsters, mannequins and robots, so too does Jeanne fall for a theme park ride in Zoé Wittock’s debut movie Jumbo opening in cinemas this week. But this strange, almost ludicrous context is carried by a convincing 80s setting and the film’s emotional sincerity.
Shy cleaner Jeanne begins a new role polishing theme parks rides only for a pendulum ride, which she names Jumbo, to respond to her touch. Over several nights, a connection grows, giving Jeanne thrills she has never experienced before. Yet trying to confess her love to her confident mother and park supervisor Marc (Bastien Bouillon) proves Jeanne and Jumbo’s undoing.
Very much in the French fantasy mode like Amelie and Umbrellas of Cherbourg but drawing on a visual realism and the norms of science fiction to create the film’s distinctive lived-in look, Jumbo is a none too subtle allegory for a young woman’s sexual awakening. The swirling ride, flashing lights and breathless cries of fear mixed with excitement rather speak for themselves while Thomas Buelens’ cinematography captures the contrasting flat-ordinariness of Jeanne’s homelife and the illuminated beauty of the park at night where, alone and untroubled, Jeanne experiences Jumbo’s magical transformation.
There is however an uneasy contrast between Jeanne’s apparent timidity and inexperience in which she cowers from men and flinches from their touch, and her frequent and unnecessary toplessness that suggests a woman far more comfortable with her body than the script implies. Likewise, Jeanne’s mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) is largely defined by her promiscuity, love of sex and voluptuousness while despairing of her daughter’s virginity. Some parental connection and understanding builds between them but it is still disappointing that the film’s only two female characters are defined entirely by their sexuality.
What sustains your interest is the deep sincerity with which the film is staged, and Noémie Merlant as Jeanne evolves as the story unfolds, emerging in confidence as love reshapes her. That the object of her affection is a machine and not a person is entirely inconsequential, and although other characters fear for her sanity, Director Wittock never presents Jeanne’s perspective as anything except valuable and reasonable. The audience feels every moment of Jeanne’s exuberance and pain as her emotional interior life expands.
The film’s conclusion treads an expected path, and while not in the same genre, it utilises the obstacles and self-acceptance messaging of the traditional rom-com. Some deeper reflection on the secondary characters would have made Jeanne’s story more explicable – to fall in love with a machine is not a usual character trajectory so some greater understanding of the void that Jeanne is trying to fill and the neglect she feels would help to balance the whimsy, but Jumbo has enough rotating parts to keep the audience invested.
Jumbo is released in cinemas on 9 July.