Close encounters of an unusual kind shake Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) to her core in Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo. With the ground literally trembling beneath her feet, strange sounds and sensations take hold at an amusement park where the sparks of sexual awakening in the timid young woman begin to fly.
As is the case for anyone falling in love for the first time, and most coming of age films, Jeanne is unable to truly articulate the feelings that she is experiencing, but knows deep down that their intensity is genuine and cannot be ignored. The stark departure from the norm here is that the titular Jumbo, and object of her affections, is itself an object – the newest fairground attraction where she has a summer job.
Nervous and uncomfortable in her own skin, Merlant is excellent as a woman of many years her junior. Under a messy bob of brown hair and unflattering baggy clothes, her nervousness at starting the new job is matched only by her embarrassment at well-meaning but overbearing mother, Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Flirtatious, provocatively dressed and speaking her mind to whomever she pleases, including a handsome newcomer to the bar where she works later in the film, she could not be more different to her daughter.
And it is not that opposites do not attract, but more that they are unable to communicate or understand one another. It rankles more and more as Jeanne’s obsession develops. Bad jokes about how she would have preferred to conceive Jeanne with her vibrator rather than a long absent husband introduce further unresolved notions of abandonment, regret and acceptance which run through the film, driving a wedge between mother and daughter. Feeling at home at a park she has visited since her childhood, Jeanne is far more at ease when everyone has left.
Acting as a kind of night watchwoman, she has the place – and, more importantly, Jumbo – to herself. The days pass, Jeanne rebuffs the rather hopeless advances made toward her by boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon), and an inexplicable ability to communicate with the ride gathers apace. From its bold, neon opening credits, and silhouetting of Jeanne’s head and shoulders in front of Jumbo’s dazzling circular lights, Wittock’s film is vibrant and visually stimulating; one particular surrealist dream sequence in which Jeanne inquisitively luxuriates in Jumbo’s oil – the sexual inferences are clear – shows a filmmaker with real vision and sensuality.
Yet unfortunately, there are just too many jumps to make and spaces to fill to fully believe this fantastical obsession. Wittock urges us to side with Jeanne, to sympathise with her, and we do. But what are the root causes of this objectophilia, and her inability to make meaningful human connections? Abuse, abandonment, something else? Her mother, lost in the pages of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, has an altogether too simplistic view of love and happiness, urging – often without any tact whatsoever – Jeanne to find a boy and have sex.
But she, and others, don’t seek to truly understand Jeanne, instead simplifying that which they cannot see or comprehend by labelling her as crazy. ‘Destination Bonheur’ (‘Destination Happiness’) it says on the side of Jeanne’s piggy bank. We do long for her to get there, but simply aren’t sufficiently invested to care whether she has her very own fairy-tale ending or not.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63