By Nicole Veneto
Jumbo is one of the most magically affecting and visually enthralling romances I’ve seen in quite some time.
Jumbo, directed by Zoé Wittock. Screening at Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Theater
The old conservative talking point that marriage equality was slippery slope that would lead to institutionalizing bestiality and other wildly idiosyncratic sexual and romantic pairings is — and always has been — a load of bull. The debate over legalizing gay marriage in America has been settled for years now, but this classic bit of right-wing scaremongering still pops up every now and then whenever a movie about a human getting it on with a non-human creature or thing comes out. Such was the reaction to 2018 Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, which generated a flood of crack-pot opinion pieces about how Hollywood liberals were legitimizing interspecies sex as the next stage of the dreaded gay agenda. Despite, or because of, the hoopla, Guillermo del Toro’s romantic reimagining of Creature from the Black Lagoon ended up emboldening filmmakers to explore the nature of love and intimacy through unconventional (if not paraphilic) couplings.
In her debut feature, Jumbo, French director Zoé Wittock draws on the real life story of a woman married to the Eiffel Tower as the basis for a coming-of-age tale about a girl who falls in love with an amusement park ride. Yes, Jumbo is a movie about objectum sexuality (objectophilia, or sexual attraction to inanimate objects), a topic that’s remained relatively untouched in the media outside of TLC’s sensationalist My Strange Addiction. (For those who don’t remember, My Strange Addiction was the reality show that featured a guy talking dirty to his car’s steering wheel.) But in Jumbo, Wittock turns what might have been cringe-inducing fodder into a beautifully empathetic and sensory treatise on the metaphysics of love.
Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant) is an introverted young woman living at home with her well-intentioned but overbearing bohemian mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), a bartender and serial dater who talks openly about using a vibrator and how much she wants her daughter to get laid. When Jeanne isn’t holed up in her room building functional model fairground rides from aluminum wire and string lights, she works the night-shift as a custodian at the amusement park she’s attended since she was a child. It’s the start of the new season, and Margarette hopes Jeanne will take an interest in her new boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon). But Jeanne’s attention immediately turns to the park’s latest attraction: The Move-It, a high-impact Super Star ride that, coincidentally, resembles her favorite model, Jumbo. This hyperfixation soon becomes powerfully serious when the ride appears to respond to Jeanne’s presence (whether or not Jumbo is sentient is left ambiguous). As Jeanne falls even deeper in love, her unconventional but emotionally fulfilling bond with Jumbo inevitably raises strong objections from those around her, particularly Margarette.
Despite the quirky (if not outright taboo) subject matter, Jumbo treats its central human/machine romance with utter sincerity. An early conversation between Jeanne and Marc raises the film’s guiding philosophical question: “Inanimate objects, do you have a soul, which sticks to our soul and forces it to love?” The answer: love possesses a transformative power that gives a soul to all things, both living and inanimate. Through an adroit use of intricate sound design and lighting coordination, Wittock imbues a massive structure like Jumbo with a discernible personality. His neon lights flicker in giddy response to Jeanne’s questions; he groans and creaks like a giant beastly mech excited in her presence. In the same way as Elisa and the Amphibian Creature in The Shape of Water, they develop a way to communicate outside of spoken language. It’s effective cinematic shorthand for an intimate bond that goes beyond sex, albeit the relationship does turn physical.
Thankfully, Wittock doesn’t subject us to watching Merlant frantically hump a fairground ride or deep-throat LED light bulbs. Magical realism — assisted by a healthy dose of surrealism — emphasizes the hallucinogenic sensory nature of the sexual encounter. The love scene between Jeanne and Jumbo takes place in an endless white dreamspace reminiscent of the opening scene of Under the Skin, complete with a Mica Levi-esque musical score. Dripping pools of viscous black oil envelop Jeanne’s naked body in a sensuous embrace; she isn’t covered by an inky void of existential nothingness but overwhelmed by a loving wholeness she’s never felt before. As Jeanne painstakingly tells Margarette during one of several heartbreaking arguments, “It’s not about sex, it’s something else.”
The emotional trajectory of Jeanne and Jumbo’s affair hits all the usual plot beats that accompany boilerplate queer romance narrative, with familial rejection giving way to societal resistance. Still, what makes Jumbo different from other “queer-by-proxy” romances is how it envisions Jeanne’s neurodivergency. Her perspective is the film’s driving stylistic device. In an interview with Variety, producer Anais Bertrand described Jeanne as “a bit autistic,” and Margarette alludes to there being something “odd” about her daughter since childhood. Whether or not Jeanne is on the autism spectrum, Merlant’s embodiment of her isn’t a minstrel show of exaggerated physical and behavioral tics. Jeanne’s hyper-sensory way of seeing the world is integral to the film’s carnivalesque mise-en-scène, where sounds, colors, and textures come together in a euphoric tapestry of heightened feelings and sensations. Interestingly, recent research on objectophilia has found substantial links with both autism spectrum disorder and synesthesia. This highly audiovisual perspective is established in the film’s oneiric opening shot — Jeanne, her back to the camera in a blackened silhouette, opening her arms to a giant orb of spinning bright light, like a saint inviting the Holy Spirit to possess her soul.
It’s a risky move to make your feature debut about something as taboo as objectum sexuality, but Jumbo is one of the most magically affecting and visually enthralling romances I’ve seen in quite some time. Wittock proves herself to be a deeply thoughtful and empathetic filmmaker who is willing to tell a paraphilic fairy tale.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.