Love is a curious thing and its various facets are a favoured focus of many films. Inspired by the true story of Erika Eiffel, the woman who married the Eiffel Tower, Zoé Wittock’s Jumbo adds to the canon of unusual romance stories: her protagonist does not fall in love with a person, but with an amusement park ride. The obsession with objects is often either fetishised or drawn into ridicule on screen, but Wittock’s screenplay and direction show a remarkable sensitivity for the oddness of her central love story. Using cinematic tools, she succeeds in making the romance palpable for her audience – to let viewers enter this unique story fully and without judgement.
Jumbo’s opening scene sets the tone for the film to come, both on a visual and a topical level: Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) dreams of bright neon lights, spinning hypnotically before her. The music rises and conveys an almost orgasmic pleasure before its protagonist awakens. Her fascination with the colourful dynamic of fairground rides, however, permeates not just her sleep, but her daily existence as well: her room is filled with detailed miniature replicas of tilt-a-whirls and ferris wheels, and lit with tinted bulbs; she is also about to start her new job at the local amusement park. Even if she is only employed to clean up the grounds after hours, this allows her to spend quality time with her beloved rides, unbothered by the many daytime customers whose traces she carefully removes.
During her first night at the park, Jeanne’s attention is drawn to its newest highlight – a ‘Move It’ ride she lovingly names Jumbo. While her first advances are still hesitant, the machine soon begins to react to her whispers and caresses, lighting up in various colours. What begins as a one-sided conversation in which Jumbo lights up green for yes and red for no soon turns into a full-blown romance: for the first time in her life, Jeanne feels emotional and sexual attraction. The object of her desire just happens to be, well, an object. “Inanimate objects, have you a soul which attaches itself to ours and forces it to feel love?” – the quote, repeated several times in the film, becomes a guiding principle which Jumbo explores. Wittock and her team re-programmed the ‘Move It’ completely in order to ensure that Jumbo responds to Jeanne organically – as if it indeed had a soul. Their aim here is not to cross the line between realism and science fiction, but to show Jeanne’s deeply subjective impression of Jumbo. He comes alive only for her, only when they are alone together; when he does, the brilliant neon lighting is breathtakingly captured by Thomas Buelens’ cinematography.
Wittock deftly shows the rush of first love, drawing on conventional filmic language even as Jumbo is breaking new ground. It’s a fluorescent fairy tale, a neon-lit romance with the power to enchant its viewers. At the same time, however, Jeanne’s character arc mirrors a traditional coming-out narrative: Jeanne, after all, does not want to love in secret, and despite the open and harmonious relationship established between mother and daughter early on, Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) responds to her daughter’s confession with a complete lack of understanding. “I didn’t ask for this,” Jeanne tells her mother, echoing the sentiments many LGBTQ+ characters have expressed before, but Margarette is incapable of accepting her daughter’s love, kicking her out of their shared home instead.
Merlant, recently so captivating in Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, does an incredible job at conveying her character’s earnestness; as Wittock herself, Merlant respects her character’s unusual love affair without question, acting believably even opposite a machine. She touchingly portrays Jeanne’s coming-of-age journey from her initial naivité – embodying Jeanne’s quirky nature effectively – to fighting fiercely for what she wants. Meanwhile, Bercot imbues Margarette with enough humanity to save the character from villainy. Undergoing a whole rollercoaster ride of emotions herself, Margarette makes the right decision to stand by her daughter in the end.
Wittock conducted extensive research into the lives of so called objectum sexuals in the process of making the film, embracing and humanising a narrative which could so easily slip into mockery. In allowing Jeanne to experience a traditional love story complete with a fairy tale happy ending, Jumbo successfully normalises the narrative of objectophilia. This is an enchanting and ultimately uplifting film, joyously promoting tolerance for any kind of sexual identity.
Jumbo screened at Berlinale 2020 from February 26th to March 1st
by Josefine Algieri
Josefine (she/her) is passionate about promoting women in film, both on screen and behind the camera. She holds a M.A. degree in Comparative Literature and currently works in publishing. Living in Germany, she constantly suffers from delayed and dubbed cinematic releases. You can find her on twitter @takeitgreen and letterboxd @andforgotten.