★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A young woman gets a job at an amusement park, and falls romantically in love with an amusement park ride, in the bizarre and brilliant dark fantasy, Jumbo. Not so much a horror movie, this is an absolutely brilliant coming of age piece about madness and unconventional affection.
Directed by Zoe Whitlock
A number of young female directors have found genre film as a way to convey the often difficult coming-of-age struggle into womanhood. Sometimes the best way to convey this chrysalis transformation is to dip into the dark and fantastic. In 2016, French director Julia Ducarneau gave us Raw, which explored the relationship of diet and self-identity at college in the form of a cannibalism story. In 2017, Swiss director Lisa Brühlmann showcased a teen trying to adjust to a new school, while turning into a mermaid and all the fearsome consequences of that mutation in Blue My Mind.
And now Jumbo has arrived, from Belgian actress/director Zoé Wittock. Jumbo is not a true horror film like Raw is, and it doesn’t have the body horror that Blue My Mind does, but it would make a terrific tripleheader with these two films. Jumbo is a dive into the psychological. A young woman who manages to find love and romance with a giant machine, and perhaps the strangest and most awkward beauty and the beast concept put to film. One thing all three of these movies have is a shared respect and love for our protagonist.
Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is beginning a new job at the local amusement park. Her doting and overprotective mother, Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) drives her to her first day. The two of them share a belt-it-out singalong to the radio, before Margarette encourages Jeanne to meet a good man, and grumbles about her ex-husband and how much she loves her vibrator… which will prove prescient. These two women clearly love each other but they are worlds apart when it comes to how romance is supposed to work.
Jeanne is beautiful, but painfully shy, particularly around men. When her new boss, Marc (Bastien Bouillon) flirts with her, she retreats into a shell and avoids conversation with him. He takes this as “hard-to-get” but relents, and gives her work assignment to her. She is a custodian doing the late shift after the park has closed. As she cleans and admires the new star attraction in the park, the spinning armed “Move It” ride, the big machine begins to communicate with her, with a series of flashing lights and mechanical groans.
Jeanne is startled at first, thinking someone might be pranking her, but she gets lured in by the hypnotic light show that the ride turns on for her, and she is SMITTEN. She re-christens the machine “Jumbo” and is completely entranced with all the bells, whistles, and motion. She has already developed a keen interest in amusement rides, having created toy replicas of her favorite rides in her bedroom, a temple to electronic amusement. A room festooned with Christmas lights, wires and gears. It is no accident that this was to be her first job.
As the days go by, she spends more and more time with Jumbo, to the point where she realizes they have a loving relationship. Meanwhile, Marc is still holding a torch out for her, and her mother is now pressuring her to date Marc, which Jeanne has outright dismissed. And she should! This is workplace sexual harassment! Marc’s a decent guy, but… limits, dude. C’mon!
Margarette has fallen in love with a man, Hubert (Sam Louwyck) she met at her diner, while waiting tables. Hubert looks like a rough individual but will prove to be the emotionally stable anchor in the film. It’s rather nice when the “step-parent” figure turns out to be the glue in the relationships.
The big dramatic shift in the movie comes when Jeanne comes clean with Margarette that she has fallen in love… with Jumbo. That does not go over well. You could see this building through the film. At some point the secret will get out, and Jeanne will be stigmatized with madness, and Margarette is distraught and enraged. And the film makes the audience decide whether to roll with the madness, or cringe at the lunacy of it all.
The Jumbo and Jeanne relationship eventually gets sexual. And that may be an eye-opener upon reading this, but it is actually done rather tastefully. If you want to see how (and you know you do!) you’ll have to watch the film. I dare not spoil that for you. I will say that it is both sexy and creepy, and has you totally engaged and also dreading and anticipating what might happen next.
Of course, secrets as weird and sordid as Jeanne’s strange relationship are bound to get out in public. It is the central dramatic tension of this film. The relationship is completely inappropriate, and Merlant SELLS IT. Her portrayal is natural and heartbreaking. This isn’t something that can last, right? How can this possibly have a happy ending? I will suggest that the ending shoots the moon, and delivers a bittersweet conclusion, though it ended just a little more abruptly than I would have liked.
Merlant pours her soul into the gentle neuroses of the role, and both she and Whittock decided to play this like a coming out of the closet LGBT allegory. A nurture or nature premise; the big dramatic drop of coming out to Margarette was the central bomb that so many gay and lesbian couples have had to wrestle with. Needless to say, Marc has a hard time grasping how he lost out to an amusement ride. Kudos for Wittock’s writing, to let Hubert play the healer and diplomat role, he too was great.
This movie, like Raw and Blue My Mind, was essential to have a woman at the helm directing. I completely suspect if this had been directed by a man it would have felt sensational and tawdry, but I came away completely entranced by this strange dark fable. When you have a sexual relationship between a ten-ton amusement ride and a teenager, this could have gone very wrong, very quickly, but it was handled very gently with a hint of magic. Wittock has demonstrated a fantastic eye for contrast and framing. When the story is about Jeanne and Jumbo, it’s all brilliant lights and motion. When the story goes to Marc and Jeanne it’s static and drab, reflecting Jeanne’s emotional state. And, Wittock’s relationship dialogue is honest and on point throughout the film.
Jumbo was a surprise hit at Sundance, and just received the Audience Award at the recently completed Chattanooga Film Festival. I agree with the rest of the audience: this was my favorite film from the festival, and it has me thinking about it two weeks after having seen it. It is not yet available for streaming and is scheduled for its French release in July 2020. (We’ll see if this happens with COVID-19) This film is not rated, but would certainly be rated R for the sexual content.
Here’s the trailer… but it’s in French, and the translation tool isn’t so great. As soon as an English trailer becomes available, I will post it.
Note: All photos credited to Caroline Fauvet except where noted otherwise.