In 2007, Erika LaBrie became Erika Eiffel, when she married the Eiffel Tower in a commitment ceremony. Eiffel is one of only a very few people who have said in public that they identify as object-sexual. Jumbo, the first feature for writer/director Zoe Wittock, says only that it is ‘inspired by’ a true story, and while it seems to draw some inspiration from the difficulties that Eiffel says she has faced (ridicule, but also members of her family all but disowning her), it also departs liberally from those facts, spinning a strange, somewhat tragicomic, but also heartfelt story about a woman who falls in love with a fairground ride.
Noemie Merlant plays Jeanne, a woman still living at home with her protective mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) in her late 20s. She starts working nights at a local fairground, cleaning the rides. One in particular, a spinner called ‘Move It’, which she nicknames Jumbo, catches her eye and soon the interest in this machine becomes a romantic relationship which she sees as reciprocated, as Jumbo switches himself on at night to ‘talk to’ her.
It would be easy, either at script level or as an actor, to play this idea for cruel laughs; to otherise and ridicule Jeanne, but from the beginning Wittock and Merlant are clearly concerned with making the psychology of the character credible. We see early on that Jeanne has an affinity not just for machines, which she builds in her room from wire and scraps, but for objects more generally. In one especially revealing moment early on she finds a stone at the bus stop, picks it up and rubs her cheek on it, seemingly calming and comforting herself.
While the film definitely says that Jeanne is at least on the autistic spectrum, showing her struggling even to speak to people she doesn’t know and a sequence on a bus in which she imagines everyone looking at her, harsh judgement in their eyes (things that are at least somewhat familiar to this autistic person), it doesn’t explicitly link her attraction to Jumbo to her neurodivergence, at least allowing for the idea that it is a true sexuality, nor does it judge her for her attraction. Jumbo is, at a basic level, about a need for connection and the idea that it shouldn’t, assuming you’re not harming anyone else, matter where that connection is found.
Wittock and Merlant walk a fine line between presenting the relationship as magic realist and as all in Jeanne’s head. The first sequences of Jeanne falling for Jumbo are the ones that fall most completely into the fairytale/magic realist aspect of the film, with Jeanne lying on Jumbo or under his lights, bathed in neon, with Jumbo answering her questions with green for yes and red for no. The divide between fairytale and reality is first and perhaps most effectively seen in Jeanne’s first ride in her paramour, by appearing to be achieved with rear projection; Jeanne notably still against the moving backdrop, Zoe Wittock gives us the experience that Jeanne is having, but also offsets it somewhat, linking us back to reality. This is a recurring theme in the film’s visuals; we see it in a beautiful, evocative, close up of Jumbo, reflected in Jeanne’s eye, which then cuts away to just show us the machine in its process, juxtaposing how Jeanne views Jumbo and ‘his’ real state of existence.
A more disturbing version of this juxtaposition comes in a sequence of Merlant in a white space, topless, covered in and tasting oil. This is the sex scene between the couple, but it has a vampiric quality that adds a more explicitly fetishised dimension to the relationship, and a shower sequence that follows underscores Jeanne’s difficulty with the relationship between her vision of what is happening between her and Jumbo and the messy reality. This difficulty only comes to the fore more in the third act, especially in the film’s most coldly realistic scene, when Jeanne thinks Jumbo has stopped talking to her and desperately tries to re-forge the connection. The only time the script misjudges this balance comes right at the end, which leans into bringing the fairytale and real together in a way that doesn’t ring true for all the characters.
Merlant is exceptional as Jeanne. Though a very different film and performance on the whole, it shares with her work in Portrait of a Lady on Fire a richness of physical detail, particularly in her face and eyes, which express everything we need to know about how Jeanne feels about objects generally, and Jumbo in particular, as opposed to people long before it is laid out in dialogue. She has a great scene partner in Emmanuelle Bercot, who brings more layers than her initial scenes as the over-protective mother of a child she still somewhat infantilises would suggest. They share the film’s best scene when, at her wit’s end, Jeanne begs her mother to feel the model she’s made of Jumbo; to see that this, and her feelings, are both something real and tangible.
On the whole, Jumbo is an excellent first feature from Zoe Wittock. It’s easy to imagine it feeling emotionally distant; the idea too weird to truly engage, but Merlant and Wittock make sure that isn’t the case, creating an affecting portrait of an unusual but genuine feeling love.