Written by Alina Faulds
The narrative structure of Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo is reminiscent of the amusement park ride that Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is supposedly enamoured with. The Move-It ride is the kind where you’re strapped in as the machine’s arms fling you in all sorts of circles and every which way. Jumbo’s tonal shifts feel the same way, often not making sense as the film’s emotions change too abruptly leaving the viewer confused and nauseous.
Jumbo follows the character of Jeanne, a young woman that still lives at home with her single mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Preferring to tinker with machinery over interacting with other humans, Jeanne takes a summer job working at an amusement park, the perfect form of employment for her interests. The amusement park is where she first encounters the Move-It ride which she affectionately decides to name Jumbo and quickly falls in love with it. Along with having to cope with her newfound objectophilia, Jeanne has to take a lot of criticism from her overbearing mother and deal with a boss that has feelings for her.
Noémie Merlant’s performance is one of the few lights of Jumbo. She totally commits to the role, having Jeanne unconditionally fall in love with Jumbo and expressing confusion at her own actions. Merlant does her best to refrain from making Jeanne a mockery despite her strange and bizarre obsession with an inanimate amusement park ride. Merlant portrays Jeanne’s feelings for Jumbo just as she would if Jeanne was in love with another human, the same devotion she shows for Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Another highpoint of Jumbo is the film’s score by Thomas Roussel. Its synthetic and techno beats help portray the character of Jumbo as Jeanne looks for signs that the machine is acknowledging her, along with the rides mechanical groans and flashing lights.
Director Zoé Wittock puts in an immense effort to make Jumbo feel real despite the whimsically fairytale nature of the film, which is actually based on a true story as stated at the beginning of the film. However despite reality, Jumbo is still going to be too bizarre to be a believable story for many people. People who are more attuned to reality will simply look at Jeanne’s character as crazy, while those who live in fantasy will understand the love she has for Jumbo. No matter how great Merlant’s performance and Wittock’s directing efforts the plot will just be too out there for people to get behind.
Jumbo’s tonal shifts fail to help as well, making the film’s realism even more difficult to believe. Jumbo freely jumps between the mother-daughter relationship with Jeanne and Margarette, Jeanne’s uncomfortable relationship with her boss, and Jeanne’s romantic relationship with Jumbo. It jumps between a comedy with humorous jabs coming from Margarette to a drama as Jeanne cries at Jumbo’s base begging for forgiveness. There are also a few scenes where Jeanne pictures herself in a blank white room with Jumbo as her only company. Pitchblack oil comes out of the machine and envelops Jeanne’s naked body, meant to be Jeanne’s release of pleasure but it just pulls the viewer out of the story’s realism once again and doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire film.
Despite immense efforts from Merlant and Wittock, Jumbo is just too bizarre of a film to fully enjoy. It’s difficult to give oneself over to the film’s while remembering how strange it is that Jeanne is in love with an inanimate object, it’s flat out weird. Wittock’s intentions are to have the viewer understand Jeanne’s love for Jumbo but instead, the viewer is just going to feel bad for Jeanne because her actions are so crazy. Jumbo is worth checking out for its bizarre plot but overall it is a disappointing piece of film.
Jumbo screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival 2020.
VIFF Website: https://viff.org/Online/