No other film this year will take you on an emotional ride like Jumbo- quite literally. One of Sundance 2020’s more unaccustomed films, this is the first feature from Belgian director/screenwriter Zoé Wittock. This could not be a louder proclamation of a debut; Wittock has gravitas and is here to shake conventional filmmaking. Rooted in the taboo topic of objectum sexuality (sexual or romantic love for inanimate objects), Jumbo was never going to be a hit for everyone. No matter because despite the odds, Wittock’s unruly film still reaches levels of magic only cinema can produce.
Based on a real story, the film follows Jeanne (Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire) as she starts her new job as the graveyard custodian at a French theme park. Her life at home offers little to her interests. A true admirer of thrills, she copes by filling every inch of her room with miniature models of theme park rides made of trinkets and scraps. With no father at home and a mother that operates on a completely different playing field, her new job offers a blissful escape. Enter Jumbo and life takes a sharp turn.
Jumbo is the name Jeanne gives to the newest addition to the park, a large Tilt-a-Whirl ride complete with a charming personality. During the empty hours of Jeanne’s shifts, Jumbo comes alive and communicates only through obscure sounds and neon lights. The two meet through implausible odds, but as many know- the unlikely of pairs are often those who find true love. Jumbo’s cogs and grease offer Jeanne something no other human can: intimacy, respect, and honest compassion. The more time they spend together the more viewers begin to question Jeanne’s reality. Is Jumbo really sentient? More importantly, is this normal enough to be socially acceptable on any scale?
Such a niche film is bound to turn people away. This is a French production, so be advised that things get sensual with a capital S. Merlant gives a superb performance as Jeanne. Her dedication to bringing genuineness to the role creates a unique grandeur that will surely stick with viewers. Even if all else fails, one can still reach the credits thanks to Merlant’s sheer talent. Her journey from the first to the last frame is engrossing. Emmanuelle Bercot’s (My King) performance as Jeanne’s disconnected mother Margarette is also just as encapsulating.
Some bolts do manage to get loose along the way. It feels like Wittock wanted her film to be longer. Some beats feel either skipped over or rushed for the sake of it ending on time. Jumbo attempts to be a nondiscriminatory take on objectum sexuality and succeeds for the most part. Wittock offers reasoning as to why someone might literally love an object. In truth, Jeanne’s obsession with theme parks is no different than the thousands of people who dedicate themselves to places such as Disneyland. However, it cannot be ignored that objectum sexuality is widely believed to be a kind of mental disorder. Wittock plays between fine lines of circumstance, unfortunately blurring some of her personal stances on the topic left desired by the viewer.
Although, Jumbo does make the case that this group of people is just like everyone else, imperfect with the desire to feel complete. Whether loving a person or thing helps one feel even slightly less imperfect, they are still human beings. It cannot be denied that people with objectum sexuality are still capable of expressing human emotion and thought. Jumbo makes this clear with its wholesome bookends- made better with the inclusion of Euro new wave!
Jumbo may slightly feel more like a direct retelling of a real story than a desired analysis. Thankfully, Wittock’s artisan touch elevates the film into something unlike anything anyone can see. The moments between Jeanne and Jumbo are full of spirit and shot gorgeously. Jumbo successfully feels like a character of its own. It would be shameful to disregard the film due to how provocative it may seem. This criticism can be dangerously rooted in prejudice. The only difference between Jumbo and films like Her and Lars and the Real Girl is that it is from a female perspective.
This is worthy of one’s time and opinion, despite some loose bolts. One cannot help but admire how far Wittock is willing to shoot. Unsafe and hip, the future is exciting for this filmmaker. Cinema needs more out of the ordinary subjects to tackle. Those who find themselves in Jumbo‘s niche crowd are sure to thrive off its bearings.
Score: ★★★ 1/2
Jumbo was selected to premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival!
Follow writer and managing editor Andrew Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626