“Fantasmic and ambitious”
(Originally published April 1, 2020)
“Have you ever felt things for an object before?”
In the past few years, cinema has been the platform of emerging new love stories. This is perhaps due to the migration away from telling the shallow, standard, run-of-the-mill heteronormative (though not necessarily heterosexual), romantic accounts that do not dare to traverse the comfortable boundaries of the classics. Following in the same daring trajectory as filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Céline Sciamma with their side-step of the romantic norms, Zoé Wittock makes her feature directorial debut with Jumbo, sporting an equal disregard for the conservative, in both a fantasmic and ambitious fashion.
Jeanne (Noémie Merlant), a woman without age who embodies both infantile and developed characteristics, has spent her entire life in an emotional parallel with her local amusement park, as if they were fretted together by an invisible string. Jeanne’s timidity and difficulty connecting with people other than her mother, Marguerite (Emmanuelle Bercot), with whom she has a tumultuous relationship, kept her isolated in her bedroom. In isolation, she delicately and precisely recreated amusement park attractions out of bricolage materials, effectively satisfying her unique sensory thresholds.
The film picks up after Jeanne has attained the job of her dreams to work in the amusement park, where she is tasked with cleaning the attractions after the park closes. During an evening of work, where she is the only employee in the amusement park, Jeanne is struck with the sensation that she is not alone.There is a seamless transfer of the sensory world from Jeanne to the audience. Over the course of the film, the audience bears witness to Jeanne’s tender, yet tension-driven balancing act. This is otherwise seen as the clear juxtaposition between her uncomfortable social interactions, either with her mother who doesn’t understand her or her boss who objectifies her, and the unmitigated freedom she feels when interacting with Jumbo.
The way in which Wittock captures this love story with such panache is by how tangible and identifiable it is for the audience. Jeanne’s sensations become readily available to anyone watching the film, and through the delicate camera work and mise-en-scène, Wittock allows each and every corporeal emotion that Jeanne feels to transcend the screen and reach the viewers. One may even call it a sensory overload: carnival lights saturating the screen, white noise filling the space, bare feet on metal machinery, droplets of water on bare skin, and jet-black ink, splattering, spilling on, and engulfing a body in one of the most perplexingly brilliant manifestations of a love scene rendered on screen. This passion is contrasted with the violent devastation enrapturing the crowd as Jeanne’s screams and cries, following Marguerite refusal to come to terms with her daughter’s first and only ‘relationship.’ These sensations are so intense that it renders the act of watching sometimes difficult, not unlike staring directly at the sun.
Gaining momentum from the sensory, the audience experiences the undefined equilibrium of external and internal experiences. Jeanne’s communication with Jumbo is effectively reciprocated on screen, detailing a two-sided love story as opposed to a unilateral obsession; Jeanne speaks to Jumbo in words, and Jumbo responds in lights. This abstract and inventive story would be but an empty shell without the prowess of the main actress, Noémie Merlant, who builds the story upon herself, pouring every ounce of conviction into her craft without having any interpersonal reciprocity with her romantic counterpart. Nevertheless, she is not fully isolated in her character development. The precarious relationship Jeanne has with her mother is tenaciously delivered as Noémie Merlant and Emmanuelle Bercot exhibit one of the most genuine and realistic mother-daughter relationships on screen, comparable only in recent times to that between Anne Dorval and Xavier Dolan in mother-son tensions present as a constant in Dolan’s films. The chemistry of the Jumbo characters does not end here: Wittock’s twist of adding a positive male role model for Jeanne, Marguerite’s new boyfriend, displays an unconventional modern dialogue of how support can come from the most unexpected of places, and his character is an utterly essential jewel to the plot.
Based on a ‘true’ story, Jumbo is the product of many years of Wittock writing to build a world around the 2007 headline of Erika Eiffel, an American expatriate and competitive archer who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower, in a case of objectum sexuality. It is important to note that outside of the idea, Wittock’s mise-en-scène is her own; Jeanne’s story is not meant to directly parallel Erika’s. Transferring reality to the screen, Wittock successfully promotes the question of “how far will love go?” instead of that regarding Jeanne’s condition. We are not meant to scrutinize Jeanne’s mental state but instead are implored to examine her condition, specifically how she loves. One would not necessarily be correct in identifying Jumbo as a coming-of-age story, but it absolutely lends itself as an ode to self-exploration, and is a one-way ticket for viewers to reposition themselves as a more empathetic audience in the world of cinema.
Director: Zoé Wittock
Writer: Zoé Wittock
Producer: Anaïs Bertrand, Anabella Nezri, Gilles Chanial
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon, Sam Louwyck