2021, NR, 93 min. Directed by Zoé Wittock. Starring Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon, Sam Louwyck, Tracy Dossou.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 19, 2021
Jeanne has finally found someone that appreciates her for who she is. Jumbo is kind, considerate, pays attention to her, and listens rather than speaking. The only wrinkle is that Jumbo is a fairground ride.
In her small French town, Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Merlant) is the awkward outsider, working seasonally in the town's amusement park. Her quiet ingenuity (as exhibited by the scale model miniatures of all rides that she crafts out of scrap metal) is matched by her meekness and inability to connect with most people. Instead, she wonders about the soul in the machine, and whether the newest attraction, blandly titled Move-It, is capable of more than just spinning in circles.
First time writer-director Zoé Wittock takes an absurd idea and imbues it with such heart, soul, and beauty that you'll automatically look past the inherent ridiculousness. Instead, you'll simply absorb its glowing sense of wonder. Even when we're used to characters falling in love with machines (and not in a Full Metal Jacket Gunnery Hartman "this is my rifle" way), they are always anthropomorphized. Even Johnny 5 had a face in Short Circuit, but watching Jumbo is akin to the experience of seeing the UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time. Jumbo feels quite alien but also explicable, much like the film that bears his name.
Wittock catches the drained colors of small town life perfectly, as essential a decision as how she films Jumbo himself – and also Jeanne, whose state reflects the two. Merlant is every pallid, tense, alienated young woman on the edge of the crowd when she's in public, and retreats into being her mother's little girl at home, but she's the ghost in Jumbo's machine, shot milky-smooth in his oily embrace. It's a smooth meshing of performance and cinematography that works perfectly within a film that is all about light and motion.
Jumbo is a fable, a beautiful allegory for acceptance, rather than the prosaic like-for-like metaphor that has become so common in modern genre films. It's way to tell a story about love across any divides, and how you never know how it will settle on you, told without bringing any baggage or preconceptions. It's a story of the ecstasy of love, astonishingly carried as much by Jumbo's operators/puppeteers as it is by Merlant. Her performance has a childlike quality, never quite engaged with the world as others are (most especially her mother, played with glorious baffled disappointment by Bercot), and without the defenses to know that she probably shouldn't tell people that she loves a few tons of steel and light bulbs. Her heart will make the ridiculous seem like an undeniable romance of the kind you can only hope you experience.
A version of this review ran as part of our AFI Fest coverage.