For her 2019 breakout in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant had the enviable task of convincing the audience that she was in love with Adèle Haenel’s initially glacial beauty. (Same, girl, same.) Meanwhile, Sundance favorite Jumbo presents her with a far more challenging task: selling viewers on the idea that the character she plays is in love, but this time it’s with a far chiller (literal) object of affection: a thrill ride at a local amusement park. It’s a testament to her talent that Merlant makes this off-kilter French romance just as believable as the swoon-inducing one in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Merlant stars here as Jeanne, a socially awkward young woman who lives a mostly solitary life, interacting only with her mother/roommate (Emmanuelle Bercot) and coworker Fati (Tracy Dossou). She works the night shift as a cleaner at the local amusement park, and her waking hours at home are spent in her room, avoiding her ebullient mother and tinkering with miniature rides she builds from lights and wires. She has an unlikely meet-cute with the newest pendulum ride, Move It, which she quickly rechristens “Jumbo.” As she intimately spit-shines “his” lights, Jumbo flashes hello, and Jeanne is smitten with the metal giant.
Meanwhile, her new boss, Marc (Bastien Bouillon), begins to pursue her, but Jeanne’s heart isn’t in the relationship. She continues to be drawn to Jumbo, who comes to life in her presence — and she comes to life in his. His speaker crackles, and he cradles a gleeful Jeanne while he whips her through the air. She tries telling her mother about her newfound love, but she can’t understand her daughter’s attraction to the, uh, attraction. While there’s a strain between Jeanne and her mom, Margarette, it’s clear that there is a closeness too, capturing the unique dynamic that often exists between mothers and daughters. Margarette does care and wants what she thinks is best for her daughter, but she doesn’t take Jeanne’s needs and wants into account.
From its opening moments lit by neon lights and set to the soundtrack of their gentle buzz, Jumbo marks a heady debut for writer-director Zoé Wittock. There’s something sacred and strangely beautiful about this romance and the movie’s brightly colored style, even if many of us initially can’t understand a human’s love for an object that seems inanimate to our eyes. Inspired by the true story of Erika Eiffel, Wittock always treats Jeanne with empathy and gentleness, fully accepting who she is and what she loves, and Merlant’s exquisite performance only cements it further. Though Jumbo takes its subject seriously, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, knowing just when to inject unexpected humor and joy.
The premise initially seems ripe for jokes, as though it might have been a Farrelly Brothers movie concept before one of them went and inexplicably won two Oscars. However, Wittock never pokes fun at Jeanne or her feelings; while her mother and some local bullies respond with derision, the film refrains from questioning the validity of Jeanne’s sexuality — and to be clear, Jeanne’s bond to Jumbo is sexual in addition to romantic. Jumbo doesn’t shy away from showing this aspect, or how their relationship changes the previously shy Jeanne into someone eager to express her desire physically.
For a film about its protagonist’s emotional awakening, Jumbo can’t make the same deeper connection with its audience. Outside of a few transcendent moments, it’s all more intellectually fascinating than truly affecting. The movie often plays it surprisingly safe for a romance between a young woman and an amusement park ride. Not going super weird might have been an intentional choice by Wittock to normalize the relationship here, but this decision sometimes tilts the film toward the bland rather than the bold.
However, despite the film’s surprising timidity, it remains worth watching for its themes of openness and acceptance — and the performance from Merlant. At a key point, an unlikely ally in the movie simply shrugs his shoulders at the relationship: it might be weird, but who is it actually hurting? This message permeates Jumbo, and those who begin the film with confusion will likely walk away with a bit more understanding of Jeanne and her real-life counterparts.
“Jumbo” is available Friday on demand.