Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant gets sweet on a theme park ride in this charming if conventionally quirky dramedy.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)
It’s the oldest story in the book: girl meets theme park ride, girl falls in love with theme park ride, girl’s mother tries to tear them apart before realizing that hey, at least the Tilt-A-Whirl never gets a headache. Okay, so it’s not the most conventional story out there, but in its basic emotional beats, Zoé Wittock‘s quirky tale of a socially awkward loner forming a unique psychosexual attraction to a glowing, spinning piece of entertainment machinery feels curiously familiar. But maybe it’s that familiarity, glommed onto such an out-there concept, that makes Jumbo worthwhile.
The girl in question is Jeanne (Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant), a bowl-cut-wearing loner who works at a run-down amusement park in Belgium and lives with her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Her mom’s a free spirit, perhaps desperately so; with her short jean skirts, jangly necklaces, and devil-may-care attitude, her joie de vivre clashes notably with Jeanne’s utter lack of social skills. She’s a cool mom of the Mean Girls variety, and her insistence on treating her distinctly adult daughter like a child (right down to packing her lunches) seems to backfire on her when Jeanne, who often seems in a world all her own, suddenly finds herself drawn to the new featured theme park ride: the “Move It”, which Jeanne quickly nicknames Jumbo.
To her credit, something about Jumbo seems decidedly alive and feeling, from the dazzling array of neon lights along its surface (which change according to its mood) to the way it bobs up and down to follow Jeanne as she walks along under it. It even seems to groan with its own voice, at least in Jeanne’s head. Wittock and cinematographer Thomas Buelens work overtime to give Jumbo its own distinct sense of character, and these moments of magical realism winsomely blur the line between fantasy and reality.
As for Jeanne herself, it’s another mercurial showcase for Merlant, who seems to be carving out a fine niche as the withdrawn romantic lead chasing a love that dare not speak its name. Unlike Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though, she’s not the steely initiator, but a lost woman-child surrendering to a passion she’s never experienced before. As is, Jeanne’s a little underwritten, and many of the biggest events in the film (particularly in the last act) feel a bit too rushed and make her feel passive in her own movie. But Merlant’s inimitable watchability, her wide-eyed joy at the little whimsies of the world, give her just enough Amelie to push us through.
While Jeanne’s awkwardness and lack of social graces seem a hindrance to the people around her, the folks she surrounds herself with don’t make it easy, whether it’s her overbearing mother or the manipulative new park manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon) who just wants her for sex. The only human being who comes closest to understanding is Margarette’s new lover Hubert (Sam Louwyck), who surprises by being the only man on the planet willing to take Jeanne seriously.
It’s that familiarity, glommed onto such an out-there concept, that makes Jumbo worthwhile.
But for as much as the film pretends to be secretly about Jeanne and Margarette’s gradual understanding of one another, the bread and butter of Jumbo is the unconventional romance at its heart. Wittock manifests that in all manner of impressionistic ways — from the aforementioned creaks and groans of the semi-alive creature in the machine to flights of imaginative fancy in which Jeanne imagines the ink-black oil of Jumbo covering and entering her in a stark white void that recalls Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. It’s when we get lost in the alien lust of Jeanne and Jumbo that the film sets itself apart from the lost-love indies one frequently finds at Sundance, which makes the scenes where we turn away from them all the more frustrating.
It’s possible to love an object, says the film, when it has the power to stick to our soul and force it to love. In that respect, Jumbo tries to be about the ineffable power of the love we project onto others, whether they’re real or material. It feels a bit too small at times to capture the enormity of that concept, but its little joys, and the impressive inventiveness of its titular creation, make Wittock’s debut one to watch.
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