Jumbo (2020) is the story of a young woman who falls in love with a tilt-a-whirl, an undeniably weird but irresistible premise. While it is not an entirely successful drama, this debut from French filmmaker Zoé Wittock is much more thoughtful and sensitive than its outrageous elevator pitch might suggest.
Noémie Merlant plays Jeanne, a socially anxious twenty-something who works at an amusement park and still lives with her overbearing mother (Emmanuelle Bercot). It is hinted— and even suggested throughout the film— that Jeanne may suffer from an undiagnosed mental health condition. Jeanne often appears uncomfortable in her own skin and displays difficulty in socializing. She is considerably more comfortable among machinery, particularly a new attraction called “The Move It” a tilt-a-whirl which she affectionately refers to as Jumbo.
It is an unusual courtship, to be sure; at night, both Jeanne and Jumbo come alive in a way neither is able during the daytime. Wittock borrows from Close Encounters as much as Cronenberg to bring the ride to life, as it communicates through a series of whirs, beeps, and buzzes along with a kaleidoscope of bright, neon lights. Jumbo awakens things in Jeanne that she has never felt for other people before, including a burgeoning sexuality. In the film’s most hallucinatory scene, the machine leaks its thick, oily grease allowing Jeanne to cover herself in it, bringing her to climax.
Objectophilia is real, and it is defined as a lust or attraction to an inanimate object. The film may have been at least partially inspired by a woman from Florida (really, where else?) who married a Ferris wheel named Bruce in 2013. While it may be tempting to write it off as laughable, Jumbo goes to great lengths both in front of and behind the camera to explore the humanity underneath the peculiarity. After breaking out with the devastating Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019), Merlant pivots effortlessly, imbuing Jeanne with all of the same longing and doomed passion that goes a long way toward keeping things from sliding into parody.
If the film never takes its subject less than seriously, it also fails to reach for any real insights. After Jeanne reveals the true object of her affections (pun intended), the relationship between Jeanne and her mother takes a central place in the story, complete with Steel Magnolias (1989) melodrama as both women try to come to terms with their individual idiosyncrasies. As a result, Jeanne’s affection for Jumbo never feels entirely convincing or explored, despite a committed performance from its star.
By the time the third act rolls around, things begin to feel a lot more conventional than they began, as if the film got spliced into a lighter, more traditional rom-com. While Jumbo never comes close to becoming a punchline, nor does it quite coalesce its different themes. The final few minutes in particular veer into a saccharine direction that feels too-pat and unconvincing. It is a rather disappointing result to an otherwise daring, unusual premise.