Guest Writer: Jordan Brown
Other people: they can be a real bummer. Especially if you’re painfully shy and awkward in any social interaction that doesn’t include your mother. This is Jeanne’s problem in Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo, a whimsical coming-of-age story about forbidden love – typical fodder you’ll find at Sundance, but with an unapologetically kinky twist: her suitor is a tilt-a-whirl amusement park ride.
Jumbo is Lars and the Real Girl’s Belgian, more sexually liberated cousin that is both goofier and darker than its US counterpart. While Lars (truly Ryan Gosling’s most underrated film, by the way) treats its protagonist’s romance with a sex doll as an impetus for his evolving interactions with other humans, Jumbo elevates what would otherwise be a much too familiar coming-of-age narrative with a truly singular inanimate object of affection (and lust).
This is thanks in large part to Wittock’s eye for awkwardness and Noémie Merlant’s (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) portrayal of Jeanne: a character that, in the wrong hands, could have been in danger of being a thinly fleshed-out “quirky girl” trope. Instead, it’s made clear early on that Jeanne is in fact quite emotionally stunted, grounding the film with a realistic discomfort recognizable to anyone who has ever had trouble relating to other people. Jeanne’s attempts at any sort of social life are thwarted by a bawdy, outspoken mother who can’t relate to her daughter’s reticent nature, as well as male teenage bullies that terrorize and embarrass Jeanne whenever they have a chance. What’s a young woman to do, then, but find connection with someone (or in this case, something) that can meet her at her own comfort level. Spending her nights as an amusement park janitor, Jeanne finds the newest ride, a tilt-a-whirl she renames “Jumbo,” a source of camaraderie that she desperately craves.
Finding romance with a ride is certainly a recipe for disaster and social ostracism, and as a film about a young woman’s sexual awakening, the film’s treatment of men in particular is satisfyingly even-keeled. (Unlike some, I didn’t really read Jumbo as an LGBTQ+ allegory as much as look at finding a romantic alternative when you don’t relate to humans in general). The film could have painted its male characters as one-dimensional villains, but Wittock clearly took care to provide them with their own rationales and agency. Even if they sometimes seem like jerks (particularly Jeanne’s slightly creepy boss Marc), you at least understand their motivations and where they are coming from.
In the end, though, the romance between woman and machine is the true savior of this film. Many an awkwardly charming young man or woman in cinema has found love in an unlikely place, to the confusion and judgement of their family, friends, and community. This isn’t a new story. But Wittock maintains a very specific, effectively weird vision of first love with Jumbo that rises above mere novelty by providing a refreshingly unique take on sex scenes, romantic rivals, confused parents, and the euphoric idea that love conquers all.