Jumbo review: A touching offbeat romance
Matthew Turner | On 10, Jul 2021
Director: Zoé Wittock
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Sam Louwyck, Bastien Bouillon, Tracy Dossu
Where to watch Jumbo online in the UK: Arrow UK / BFI Player (subscription) / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
A distinctive debut for writer-director Zoé Wittock, Jumbo is a decidedly offbeat romance that’s inspired by real-life tales of “objectophilia” – sexual desire for, or obsession with, inanimate objects – such as the woman who married the Eiffel Tower. Anchored by a remarkable performance from Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant, it’s comfortably the strangest film you’ll see all year.
Merlant plays Jeanne, an introverted 30-something woman who still lives with her outspoken single mother, Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Content with her cleaning job at the local fairground, Jeanne becomes instantly smitten when a new fairground ride arrives (one of those large spinning things), which she quickly christens “Jumbo”. Soon, she’s sneaking in after dark to spend intimate personal time with the machine of her dreams. But is it possible that her feelings are reciprocated?
There is, inevitably, some questioning over Jeanne’s mental health – it’s implied that she’s spent time in an institution – but this is emphatically not a film about her dealing with a disorder. Rather, it’s a surprisingly touching and even strangely erotic love story – it just happens to be a love story between a girl and a machine.
Wittock’s assured direction navigates a tricky tonal balance throughout, acknowledging a level of fantasy, but also keeping a grounding in reality. To that end, it’s the impressive production design that brings Jumbo to life, having him communicate in flashing red and green lights or sweeping movements – thankfully, Wittock resists the urge to give him an actual voice, like a Transformer.
The film’s coup de grace comes in the form of a deeply strange and powerfully intense sex scene that owes a stylistic debt to the feeding sequences in Under the Skin. Against a pure white background, a naked Jeanne slowly covers herself in thick, black oil, as if her passion is literally consuming her. The scene is all the more unusual because it’s not presented as a straightforward dream sequence or fantasy in the traditional sense; it just burrows into your brain and stays there.
Merlant is simply extraordinary as Jeanne, delivering a performance that’s so intensely committed that you start to worry about her. Either way, her commitment pays off, because you don’t just buy into her love for Jumbo, you actually start for root for these two crazy kids to make it, despite the odds. A large part of that is down to Merlant’s physicality and the yearning looks she directs at Jumbo, as well as the palpable happiness she feels in Jumbo’s reassuring presence.
In addition, Bercot is superb as Margarette, whose evolving relationship with her daughter is just as touching as the central love story. There’s also strong support from Bastien Bouillon as Jeanne’s smitten boss, Marc, and from Sam Louwyck as Margarette’s surprisingly understanding new boyfriend, Hubert.
On top of that, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Thomas Buelens, and there’s a superb score from Thomas Roussel that heightens the film’s defiantly romantic atmosphere. Ultimately, this is almost certainly a cult film in the making, a delightfully offbeat fantasy romance that’s destined to be taken to the heart by some and derisively dismissed by others. Either way, it’s a striking and unforgettable debut that marks writer-director Wittock out as a talent to watch.
Jumbo is now available on Arrow UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription. It is also available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.