Pihla Pekkarinen reviews Zoé Wittock’s debut, as part of FilmSoc’s coverage of Sundance Film Festival 2020.
Jumbo is about desire, about relationships, about love, about sex. It is also about a girl who falls in love with a fairground ride.
Jeanne is a young girl who lives with her mother and works the night shift at the local fairground. She discovers a newly installed ride and begins to spend lots of time carefully cleaning it and chatting to it. One evening, she gets a reply; so begins a bizarre love story between girl and machine. Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo is a surrealist portrayal of object sexuality.
By night, Jeanne’s romance with Jumbo is sensual and sincere; by day, she seems insane and severely in need of help. The film skillfully uses lighting to capture this nighttime sensuality: Jeanne’s face illuminated in the dark by Jumbo’s bright neon lights is a visualization of their communication and intimacy. He is projecting himself onto her, and she unto him. Contrastingly, the moments we see Jumbo in broad daylight are jarring and upsetting. He appears as a hunk of metal the other characters cannot see past. We also see Jeanne as others see her: a frumpy girl in an oversized uniform who won’t look anyone in the eye. By day, the romance dwindles into a crazy obsession; by night, we return to the magical intimate space between Jeanne and Jumbo.
Producer Anaïs Bertrand describes the film as “a very classic story… about a young girl’s first love and how her mother adapts to this new situation.” The conflict between Jeanne’s mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Jeanne is a central driving force of the narrative. Margarette is sexually permissive but cannot understand Jeanne’s attraction and attacks her for it. Bercot’s brokenhearted mother figure serves as both a source of reason and of frustration. Her physical altercations and screaming matches with Jeanne are reminiscent of ones between a homophobic parent and their child, drawing on emotional references that lend a new layer of meaning to their conflict. Jeanne’s boyfriend and manager Marc is another source of great discomfort, pushing the audience to sympathize with her romantic attraction to Jumbo. Her manager at the park, Marc, walks in on Jeanne while she’s changing clothes, and proceeds to pursue her against her wishes. Margarette encourages their relationship, even inviting him round to have sex with her daughter. This quasi-prostitutional treatment of Jeanne reinforces the film’s anxious tone, further elevating the sympathy we feel for her relationship.
The film is bizarre and surreal in concept and style, but not in emotion. Noémie Merlant (A Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire) delivers a brilliantly subdued performance as Jeanne. Her anxiety toward men and her passion for Jumbo is palpable, and she manages to make a romance between a teenage girl and a fairground ride feel sincere and relatable. Together with Wittock, they turn a story that could have been silly and cringeworthy into one with real heart. Jeanne’s adoration for Jumbo feels true; her tears are heartbreaking and her passion is sexy. This narrative of forbidden love does not differ altogether too much from Juliet and Romeo, or Maria and Tony. The surrealist elements accompany a universal story of love and loss, surprising and impressive at every turn.
Jumbo is not yet available to stream or purchase. Check out the trailer below: