Machines have feelings just like us, or at least that’s what Zoé Wittock’s debut feature film Jumbo would have you believe. Centred on the love affair between Jeanne (A Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant) and a theme park ride she’s named Jumbo, this erotic drama, which is based on a ‘true’ story, is sure to shock and amaze in equal measure. With its stunning cinematography and striking performance from the film’s lead at its core, it’s hard not to be enthralled by Jumbo, even if it seems wrong.
Jeanne is different, and this is evident from the first moment we see the young woman sleeping nude in her bedroom as the colourful lights of her miniature machines twinkle around her. Social interaction is not her strong suit, she works at night cleaning a theme park and doesn’t know how to respond when new boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon) attempts to flirt with her. Even her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) is concerned for her daughter’s love life, pushing her towards the man who is clearly smitten for her. But, its not humans she develops a connection with, it’s the semi-sentient machine she spit-cleans every night that she becomes inexplicably drawn to.
Given the story’s odd premise, it’s hard to imagine being impressed by the narrative presented onscreen at first glance, but -thanks to Merlant’s incredible turn as Jeanne- it does. She exudes poise despite the awkward nature of her character and gives her a vulnerability that makes her instantly likeable. But her talent truly shines when Jeanne comes face-to-face with Jumbo, the giant, colourfully lit machine she falls desperately in love with. Acting opposite the inanimate object, Merlant adopts the air of a shy lover, tiptoeing around it (him?) with a look of awe on her face when they first become acquainted with one another. Even though she is acting in a scene alongside the theme ride, her emotional performance makes it seem like any other romantic scene.
Thanks to her captivating turn as Jeanne we, as the audience, can empathise with her and we’re also able to forget that Jumbo isn’t even alive. Along the same lines, credit must be given to Wittock’s excellent narrative choices, and how well they work alongside the visuals of cinematographer Thomas Buelens. Jumbo feels like a real, living being thanks to their efforts. With small mechanical noises and its colourful lights turning on and off, lighting Merlant’s face as she interacts with the theme park ride, Wittock takes us on an emotional journey. Through her short, yet expressive story, the director ensures we are transfixed by the relationship between these two characters.
Objectophilia is a strange phenomenon, and not one that can be easily accepted as a social norm. While there have been a few people to feel a lust for buildings, like Erika Eiffel who took the last name of her ‘spouse’, it’s not something we immediately think of when romance comes to mind. But, Wittock somehow manages to make a fascinating -if a little short- narrative around this notion, though it wouldn’t work half so well without Merlant’s captivating performance.
Written by Roxy Simons